Candidate deposit requirement guarantees same faces on the ballot
Ever wonder why so many Japanese politicians are old and that the only new faces tend to be their progeny? There are a number of cultural explanations for this phenomenon, but there’s also a financial one. It’s called the kyotakukin, or deposit, system.
To run for any office in Japan, whether national or local, a person must deposit a certain amount of cash with the relevant election authorities. If the person wins, the deposit will be returned, but if the candidate loses and in the process fails to garner a certain percentage of the votes cast, he or she forfeits the money. The amounts required are high, and for national office almost prohibitively so. Candidates for prefectural and municipal office need to pay deposits of between ¥300,000 and ¥600,000, depending on the size of the constituency. However, candidates for the Lower House of the Diet have to deposit ¥3 million for a constituency seat and ¥6 million for a proportional seat. Constituency seats are decided for an electoral district simply by the number of votes cast in the district. Proportional seats are decided by the portion of votes a particular party receives on the proportional part of the ballot.
Many candidates, in order to guarantee success, run in both contests, because while they may lose in the constituency race, their party may gain a large enough portion of votes to allow them to be swept into office on the proportional ticket. In that case they have to pay deposits for both seats, meaning ¥9 million. If a constituency candidate doesn’t garner at least 10 percent of the total votes, he or she has to forfeit the deposit.
A few other countries have candidate deposit systems, but Japan’s is the most expensive by far. According to a recent article in the Tokyo Shimbun, the United Kingdom only requires the equivalent of ¥62,000 to run for national office, Canada ¥80,000, and Korea about ¥1 million, the highest after Japan. Most democracies either never had the system or have done away with it. Historically, its purpose was always obvious: to limit the number of candidates and make sure that those with financial power also held political power.
This is exactly the reason it was introduced in Japan. The kyotakukin system was implemented as part of the Regular Election Law of 1925. Before then, suffrage was limited to men who paid at least ¥3 a year in national taxes. The new law expanded voting rights to all men over the age of 24, but with such a larger pool of voters the authorities were afraid there would be a limitless number of candidates as well, so they looked to the English electoral system as a model, something they’d been doing ever since the Meiji Restoration of 1868. In England, a class-bound society, deposits were mandated to limit candidates to the upper ranks. The Japanese government thus decided to require candidates for national office to deposit ¥2,000, which was double the annual starting salary for a civil servant at the time. However, the real reason for the law was thought to be to prevent socialist elements from entering politics.
The deposit system continues to this day, and the amounts required have increased in line with the standard of living and other factors. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications says that the money that’s collected is needed to pay for elections. The Tokyo Shimbun says that the only political party that has ever objected to the system is the Communist Party, mainly for ethical reasons but also for its own sake since the Communists typically are forced to forfeit a lot of deposits after a general election.
In 2009, 152 members of the party ran for constituent seats nationwide and paid ¥276 million in deposits. None won and none achieved 10 percent of their respective constituencies’ votes, so all that money was lost. In proportional races, there were 79 Communist candidates. Nine won and 61 losers had to forfeit their deposits, meaning the party lost another ¥390 million.
The main problem with the deposit system is that established parties already in power can raise this money easily while new parties can’t, thus limiting the latter’s ability to even get their foot in the door. Tokyo Shimbun interviewed a representative of the Green Active citizens group, which is struggling to field candidates in the next general election. They hit on the idea of getting 600 supporters to contribute ¥10,000 each for the deposit, but that only pays for one candidate. The newly formed Green Party of Japan is having similar headaches raising enough money for the next election. Their supporters are not very rich. As one expert told the paper, the amount of the deposit has risen steadily over the years without opposition since “present politicians don’t want to allow outsiders in, because then they would have to really compete.”
Ironically, in 2008, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party submitted a revision to the Election Law that would lower the deposit, not in order to open up the electoral process to a wider range of citizens, but rather to put a brake to the forward momentum of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. The LDP thought that if the deposit was lowered, more “liberal” candidates would run, thus siphoning off votes for the DPJ. At any rate, it didn’t pass.