Elections -- Unlocking Democracy

By Takaaki Ohta

Internet campaigning and Japan’s political process

Barriers to Internet electioneering
The “1940 system,” a term coined by influential economist Yukio Noguchi of Waseda University, describes the process that helped create Japan’s postwar socioeconomic structure, seen by many as the best practice to have come from the socialist system. Contrary to popular belief, its foundation is not the postwar reform facilitated by the Allied Powers that occupied Japan following WWII, but rather the prewar national mobilization policy undertaken by the so-called “reformist bureaucrats” of the 1930s. The total war regime characterized by bureaucratic socioeconomic control still persists in contemporary Japan. However, the recent “structural reforms” by the Koizumi administration were seen as one of the attempts to upset this 1940 system.

The “1925 system”—a political version of the 1940 system—refers to the rigid electoral system established before or after 1925, which still rules over the democratic processes in contemporary Japan. As it is often said, the revised Lower House Election Act of 1925, which established universal manhood suffrage, was a direct result of the prewar movement for democratization. However, under the pretext of fair and clean elections, this law significantly strengthened restrictions on electioneering. This included door-to-door canvassing, distributing election-related documents, and third-party electioneering. The postwar electoral system, on the basis of the Public Offices Election Law (POEL), upheld these restrictions; consequently, an exceptionally rigid and uniform process of elections compared with other advanced democracies became the standard in Japan.

The information age shed new light upon this distinct system. Many countries had already adopted Internet electioneering in the 1990s, but the 1925 system prevents its use in Japan. For instance, during elections, a candidate cannot update their website nor publish their canvassing speech on YouTube. In response to this archaic set of restrictions, the Democratic Party submitted a revised POEL bill to the Diet for the legalization of Internet electioneering. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party also issued an official report, which gave positive consideration to Web campaigning. On the other hand, the influential power of the online world over the election processes is coupled with some hard criticisms. Some question whether the widespread popularity of the Internet diminishes or enhances constitutional guarantees of democratic processes. Or more specifically, what are the implications of Internet electioneering for Japan’s democracy, which has been rejecting these options for so long?

Internet in election campaignsSome argue that opening up the use of the Internet in election campaigns will improve the state of Japan’s democracy.

Political concerns
Internet electioneering has a number of advantages: improving communication between candidates and electors, financing efficiency, and the vitalization of thirdparty electioneering. However, it does not come without its problems, arousing concern and skepticism from some constitutional theorists and others interested in the Internet’s effects on existing democratic societies.

One of these critics is Cass R. Sunstein of Harvard University. Wary of the Internet’s ability to be a balanced source of information, he points out that it may actually be less effective compared to more traditional media sources, such as newspapers and magazines. His concern is the public’s ability to filter what they see. Internet users must always filter their online experience on some level due to the sheer volume of information available. This is done through the use of user-friendly “infomediaries”—search engines, feed aggregators, or customized community services. Although the options for information filtering are vast and powerfully advanced, they also have the ultimate effect of limiting the types of information that users encounter. In a world where an elector purchases only particular kinds of information well-adapted to one’s existing viewpoint, materials that must be publicly considered and deliberated throughout a democratic society are insufficiently afforded. This creates an unhealthy state of democracy.

Another scholar with particular interest in this issue is Lawrence Lessig of Stanford University, who draws focus to the tight control of the Internet. Unlike the conventional libertarian perspective that the Internet cannot be regulated, he sees the online world as already highly regulated, citing the structures in place that currently monitor e-commerce, including mechanisms such as personal authentication. Further, he points out that the commercialization of the online world has endowed certain entities with more control than is ideal, mainly through the use of “code.” For him, the problem is not whether the Internet must be regulated, but who must regulate the Internet. He writes that free speech in the online world is marginally guaranteed within code-based spaces created by the information industry. AOL, for example, has complete freedom in generating code for its Websites, organizing online communities over which it has complete regulatory authority. These online communities are not regulated by democratically elected lawmakers, but operationally employed code-writers. Lessig sees this type of structure as inherently undemocratic; where electors can hold their lawmakers accountable through democratic processes, no such process exists for code-writers, employed by such entities as AOL.

These two scholars label themselves as part of the “second generation” of Internet studies. The first generation, which had its peak in the 1990s, delivered a positive assessment of the Internet, and had been generally opposed to Internet regulation.
In contrast, the second generation in the 2000s fears that the existing condition of the Internet has the potential to bypass certain issues of public concern and to limit, rather than expand, public discourse. This second generation supports a tighter regulation of the Internet, arguing that this will make it a better tool for enhancing democratic processes and discourse.

Such perspectives have clear implications for Internet electioneering. Elections are a core part of the democratic process. Therefore, those who are affiliated with the second generation presumably posit that elections and campaigns centered around the online world require some reasonable restraints in an effort to improve the quality of democracy, and widen the scope of public deliberation. Even granted that the unrestrained development of Internet electioneering leads to an increase of political communication, such situations are insufficiently appreciated by these critics.

Peculiarities of Japan’s democracy
Most of the research on this issue is based on the US democratic system. When applying this US-focused analysis to thinking about information technology and democracy in Japan, the nations’ historical differences should be considered. Many of the most powerful arguments outlined by the second generation arose from the distinctiveness of contemporary American society. In the US, which has so deeply cherished the values of liberalism, we have seen some adverse effects of this ultra-plurality and freedom. For example, free speech based on the “marketplace of ideas” theory is a fundamental principle in American society. Fortune 500 companies and influential interest groups have, however, disproportionately dominated the discourse in this so-called “marketplace of ideas.” In addition, the power of capital to control the media industry has led to the information market being flooded with material based on specialized private, not public, interests or values. Mere freedom often leads to unfair or distorted freedom that has adverse effects on democracy. Freedom is important; on the other hand, “market failure” due to excessive freedom must be corrected in the light of more public demands. This is the cause of the second generation.

However, Japan has historically failed to willingly share such an ethos of freedom. Even election campaigns have been officially and tightly restricted. It is important to note that the aim of these regulations is not the protection of public interest, but the intensification of bureaucratic control. As mentioned earlier, most of the current regulations for electioneering in Japan were first stipulated before or after 1925. These regulations were a direct product of the authoritarian and paternalistic approach to social governance at the time. Government authorities—particularly the Home Ministry—exercised special vigilance over popular participation in political processes. Moreover, they claimed that this vigilance against political corruption was necessary for fair elections because the Japanese electorate was believed to have an inadequate understanding of their public roles and responsibilities. As a result of this arguably paternalistic approach, extensive rigid regulations, and complex electoral system, the electoral process in Japan has become deeply professionalized and inaccessible to much of the general electorate.

Political speeches—a staple of many democratic election processes—have not been allowed to play a major role in Japanese elections.

More importantly, the continual imposition of such complex restraints on electioneering has diminished opportunities for direct interaction between candidates and their constituents. It is hard to obtain the most basic materials about the candidates during their campaigns, because only strictly and officially monitored information is offered. As a result, political speeches—a staple of many democratic election processes—have not been allowed to play a major role in Japanese elections. Experienced politicians in Japan have focused their campaign efforts on their own informal networks, territorial, family connections, and through their supporters’ associations. This kind of nepotism and insularity has often been enough to secure election victories for these politicians. In sum, informal communal bonds in Japanese society continue to be the most decisive factor in election races. When understood in this context, the 1925 system has historically deactivated Japan’s democracy, not only in an institutional sense, but also in a practical sense.

Internet electioneering has the enormous potential to introduce practical change into such traditional aspects of Japan’s democracy. This is because desiderata for election processes in this country supplies a vast amount of information, and this provides a situation where electors can freely pick and choose what they wish to know. The US scholars of the so-called “second generation,” like Lessig and Sunstein, presumably consider this overload of information unsatisfactory or inadequate. On another front, in Japan, where “government failure” in place of “market failure” has historically weighed on election processes, the new way of electioneering via the Internet must be installed with a view to release Japan’s democracy from the old 1925 system, and to enter into a new freer paradigm. JI

A research associate at the Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University, Japan He can be reached at ohta@toki.waseda.jp