Editorial: Don't let low-quality candidates haunt upcoming election
Two new parties -- Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's Party of Hope and Yukio Edano's Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) -- are ready to hit the hustings for the Oct. 22 general election.
The wave of new candidates this promises has a chance to inject some energy into the campaign. However, it is also true that there are young lawmakers who have ridden past booms in their party's popularity to their seats in the Diet, some of whom have what might delicately be called questionable self-awareness as politicians.
One example of this is the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s so-called "demon sophomores," the crop of scandal-prone second-time lawmakers who won their seats in their party's landslide House of Representatives election victory in 2012, and were re-elected in 2014.
Lower house elections are primarily fought over single-seat constituencies, and a party enjoying a groundswell of public support can reap these seats in overwhelming, majority-forming numbers. In fact, a party's strength is buoyed up by this vast roster of new lawmakers.
Sometimes, these fresh-faced election winners are referred to collectively by some catchy nickname based on the party powerbrokers who led their recruitment -- "Koizumi children" for those who swept into office under the banner of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi; "Ozawa girls" for the women invited to run for the former Democratic Party of Japan by its then chief election strategist Ichiro Ozawa; and "Abe children," the new batch of LDP candidates brought in by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
There are a lot of lawmakers out there who wanted to become politicians and won their seats through conscientious preparation. However, in past political booms, we must say that there are many Diet members who appear to have been brought on-board the party bus without being seriously vetted.
It is frankly difficult for voters to gauge a new candidate's political qualities in the scant few weeks between lower house dissolution and polling day. Thus, the primary responsibility for choosing appropriate candidates to represent the people lies with the parties themselves.
About half the candidates the Party of Hope has announced it is endorsing are new, including those who have switched from other parties such as the disintegrating Democratic Party (DP). Leader Yuriko Koike has stressed the need for the elimination of constraints in politics and consistent policy positions among her party's candidates, but her explanation of whom and why she chose them to run on the Hope ticket remains insufficient.
There are also candidates parachuted into constituencies where they have no real political base. Sometimes, it is impossible not to feel that a party has put hitting a candidate number target ahead of vetting, particularly when in a hurry to draw up its list of endorsements. In the 2005 general election, more than 80 of the many new LDP candidates chosen through a recruitment drive won their constituencies. By the last lower house poll in 2014, only about half still held their seats.
The LDP also has a deeply-rooted tradition of "hereditary" constituencies, where generations of a single family harness well-established local support organizations and simple name recognition to hold onto a lower house seat virtually in perpetuity.
Meanwhile, LDP candidates not part of a local electoral dynasty or deposited by the party into zero-competition constituencies tend to be at the mercy of the prevailing political winds.
Hereditary constituencies are a serious barrier to getting fresh faces on the LDP's candidate roster. The party has made repeated election promises to re-examine the hereditary system but continues to rely on it heavily even now, leaving reform proposals gathering dust.
Parties and policy are of course very important. However, if individual candidates have neither the sense of responsibility nor the vision to undertake governance of the nation, then there is no meaning to their candidacies. The parties are called upon to back candidates that truly have the right stuff for the job. Furthermore, to prevent the "children" nickname from becoming ironic, the voters too need to take a close, hard look at who is running to represent them.