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Politics, No.7  Sept. 29, 2011


Introduction: The rules of the game are lost

Photo : Takayasu Kensuke

Takayasu Kensuke

The current political situation makes us wonder if the rules of the game have been lost.

Even after the unprecedented earthquake and tsunami disaster and the nuclear plant accident that can be labeled as a man-made disaster, resulting from previous flawed nuclear and electric power policies, politics and the bureaucracy continue to malfunction. It is appalling that a political consensus cannot be reached. As usual, the politicians are searching for a scapegoat. Many are now acting as if the problems could be resolved by simply dragging the prime minister down. However, the reality goes beyond the issue of a single individual.

If the rules in politics have really been lost, it is now time to establish minimal rules that will allow politics to work. These should be based not on new laws and institutions but on new practices agreed upon between the various parties. These practices should be supported by legitimacy. If it is politically beneficial to parties to win legitimacy, the new practices will be established. In this sense, the arena of debates that assesses legitimacy has a significant role to play.

This article focuses on political issues that immediately require new practices, and examines their key points. They include the responsibility of the House of Representatives to appoint the prime minister, the political cycle, the relationships between the two houses of the Japanese parliament, or the Diet, intra-party governance and the relationships between politics and bureaucracy.

Change of Prime Minister and responsibility for appointment

Japan’s political circles have been alternately optimistic and pessimistic over the resignation of Prime Minister KAN Naoto since the no-confidence motion was filed on June 1.

Of course, it is not incomprehensible for doubts to be cast on his personal capacity as supreme leader. He hinted that he would step down to gain support in the no-confidence vote. Shortly after surviving it, he publicly announced that he had no intention of resigning. This approach gives the impression that he is an inept leader. It is also reported that he is failing to captivate and effectively control other cabinet members, staff and bureaucrats. He appears similar to a field battle commander who excels in surmounting obstacles, but he does not look like a leader who calls people together to generate collective strength.

The House of Representatives, the lower house of the Japanese Diet, elected him as prime minister. The resolution was passed by the House, which includes the opposition, but the ruling parties voting for him have greater responsibility. Unlike the system of direct popular election of the political leaders, such as the president of the United States, the parliamentary system appoints Diet members to elect the prime minister. Why does the electorate leave the election of the prime minister to the Diet members, rather than undertaking a direct election itself? Because the Diet members are trusted to be familiar with the personality, judgment and leadership of the candidates for the post, and because they have worked together with and close to them for a long time, they are therefore able to assess them. However, Diet members have virtually admitted their own lack of sense when they showed that they were disillusioned with the prime minister after they have elected him to office only a year ago. They cannot be deemed to have fulfilled the duty delegated by the electorate to choose the prime minister. Those who also designated Yukio HATOYAMA as prime minister, who remained in office for eight months before stepping down, are to elect the next prime minister without feeling shame at their own fault and without reflecting on the problems.

The problems lie not only in the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The personal qualities of two of the past prime ministers under the rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), namely ABE Shinzo and ASO Taro, were questioned during their terms of office. Those Diet members who were elected in the general elections in 2005 and 2009 failed to choose good leaders.

The political world may be facing difficulties finding competent human resources. The style of recruitment in political circles has been changing in recent years. Along with the increasing flexibility of the labour market, it is possible that new types of Diet members may come into being. Another key to encouraging a wider variety of people to stand for election will be to enable them to return to their former workplaces in the event of losing the election.

A mechanism for developing leaders needs to be constructed within political parties. During the period of LDP rule, the factions had this function. The structure of the rivalry between a number of leaders within a single political party was justifiable in the days without regime changes from the perspective of checking power. Today, on the assumption of power rotation, political parties are instead required to choose one leader in each generation. In light of the current system for electing the members of the House of Representatives, it is the electorate that ultimately chooses the prime minister as the topmost leader.

There is speculation as to whether the political parties as they are today feel proud to successfully develop and choose one leader in each generation. Political parties are not only composed of the members of the Diet, but also of local assembly members, party members and supporters. There remains a suspicion that they may not have elected the topmost leader seriously in anticipation of immediate change. In a representative democracy, political parties and the House of Representatives are responsible for electing and developing leaders suited to the post of prime minister. It is far from adequate to merely replace leaders. The responsibility for appointment held by the political parties and the House of Representatives is to name and support a person who is capable of leading the nation for a predetermined period of time.

A consequence of the short political cycle

Why are Japanese prime ministers forced to step down only a short time after appointment? In this respect, it is unfair to blame politicians alone.

This appears to be basically due to the frequency of elections in Japan. Here, elections are not only the national elections for the members of the two houses of the Diet, but also the intra-party elections of the two major parties in the Diet, namely the DPJ and the LDP, for electing their respective party leaders. They also act as tests for prime ministers.

Under the Japanese Constitution, the term of office is four years in the House of Representatives and six years in the House of Councillors, the latter of which corresponds to the upper house. However, House of Councillors elections take place every three years. Half of its seats are elected in each election. As for the House of Representatives, which may be dissolved during the term of office, general elections has taken place at a frequency of once every three years and four months since 1980. In the 65-year period from 1945 to 2010, national elections took place once every 18 months. In fact, in the decade from 2001 to 2010 there were only three calendar years without a national election: 2002, 2006 and 2008.

In addition to the frequent national elections, there are intra-party leader elections, which make Japan’s political cycle even shorter. The LDP president has a term of office of two to three years (which is currently set at three years), while the DPJ president has a term of office of two years. Both of these are shorter than the four-year term of office of those members of the House of Representatives with a mandate to elect the prime minister. In addition, both parties stipulate that in the event of a vacancy before the expiration of the term of office of the predecessor, the succeeding president shall serve the remaining term of office.

In a representative democracy, the political cycle determines the period during which the power is delegated to political elites. If it is too long, political responsiveness will be impaired. If it is too short, it is difficult to implement any policy developed from a long-term perspective. In addition, the political cycle is also decisive in creating the expectations of politicians and bureaucrats. Loyalty goes to the person who is expected to remain in power. Any anticipation that he or she may soon go or be replaced impairs the dignity of the prime minister. There are limits as to what can be done by a prime minister who is soon due to undergo a test.

Under the LDP’s previous one-party dominant regime, the LDP’s victory was basically a given in national elections. They did not function as a critical constraint against the LDP government. Until the House of Councillors election in 1989, there had been no prime minister under the LDP rule who had resigned due to defeat in a national election, with the sole exception of Miki Takeo, who stepped down as a result of the House of Representative election in 1976. This is why the high frequency of elections, comprising national elections and LDP presidential elections, was justified to a certain degree.

However, today’s political circumstances differ from those of the past. A lower-house election may result in a change of government. A change of prime minister or cabinet can be achieved through the House of Representatives election, and not through the intra-party election. It is no longer necessary for the ruling party to hold elections for its leader at short intervals.

On the other hand, the Diet is now in a contradictory state in which no political group has a majority in both houses. Particularly after the emergence of the two major parties, they check and fiercely compete with each other across the two houses. Some argue that the legitimacy of the two houses differ in chronological order, as is reflected in the expression of chokkin no min-i (the most recent public opinion). According to them, if the House of Representatives election takes place earlier than the latest House of Councillors election, the legitimacy of the prime minister and cabinet backed by the House of Representatives is considered inferior to that of the House of Councillors, and the House of Representatives is more susceptible to pressure for dissolution. This results in a very short political cycle and destabilizes the position of the prime minister and cabinet, as discussed later. Originally, the public opinions reflected in the two houses of the Diet were separate from each other due to the disparity of the election methods. However, if the perception of superiority or inferiority in legitimacy of the two houses continues, it will be desirable to hold the elections for both houses on the same date.

At any rate, political elites should be given a certain period of time to run the country. Rules on party leader elections can be changed by revising the intra-party procedures. Bicameral elections can be held on the same date if such an agreement is established among the political parties. Once a power centre is established, constraints on this centre can be imposed externally. External constraints are particularly important in an era in which politicians and bureaucrats have lost trust from the public. The importance of the bicameral legislature system lies in precisely this point.

Independence between the two houses of the Diet

The relationship between the parliamentary system and the bicameral system in Japan gives rise to the disparity and confusion of views in the context of grasping the current situation.

The bicameral relationship varies depending on whether or not both houses are under the control of the same political force. In other words, the combination of the parliamentary system and the bicameral Diet functions in different ways, depending on whether they are controlled by the same group or by two different groups. Under the parliamentary system, the majority of the assembly controls the cabinet. In this respect, there is implied integration between parliamentary power and executive power. The democratic legitimacy of the power is therefore derived from the parliament elected by the electorate via ballot. When the same political bloc holds the majority in both houses of the Diet, the parliamentary operation is a matter of intra-party governance in the eyes of the prime minister and cabinet. House of Councillors members from a ruling party are not involved in the appointment of the prime minister as House members, although they are involved in party leader elections as party members. In this sense, the parliamentary system demonstrates its uniqueness, which is that of the prime minister and cabinet supported by the ruling party.

It is a different story if the party holding the majority in the lower house fails to secure a majority of the seats in the other house. The bicameral system essentially means that more than one body holds political legitimacy. To put it a different way, the power is not monopolized by either of the houses, but is shared by both. Due to this sharing of power, active or passive cooperation between the majorities in the two houses is essential. Although Japan’s Diet is based on this bicameral system, the House of Representatives determines the fate of the cabinet to support the parliamentary cabinet system, while the House of Councilors is not virtually involved in setting up the cabinet. It does carry out an election to name the head of government, and it is entitled to specify whom it wishes to assume the post of prime minister. However, the person named by the upper house becomes the prime minister only when its intention agrees with that of the lower house. Should there be any disagreement between the two intentions, the House of Councilors has no influence. This does not mean the dismissal of the House of Councilors. It means that the upper house is independent from the power bloc consisting of the House of Representatives and the cabinet.

It is institutionally inappropriate that the house that is not involved in the selection of the prime minister is virtually capable of axing the prime minister by means of a censure resolution. Due to non-involvement in the selection process, it is not always the case that the candidate desired by the House of Councillors is elected as prime minister. The dismissal of every prime minister who was unwanted by the House of Councillors would destabilize the entire system.

If the House of Councillors is practically entitled to dismiss the prime minister, it will be necessary to incorporate its preferences into the selection of the prime minister as well. However, if the candidate backed by a resolution of the upper house is selected prime minister, the intention of the House of Representatives will be disregarded in a manner that clashes with what is envisioned by the Constitution. A coalition government that gives consideration to both houses and the non-cabinet alliance could therefore be solutions to this problem.

However, the current constitutional system, under which the formation of the government requires no confidence from the House of Councillors, envisions that this house has neither the authority nor the responsibility for the selection of the prime minister, except in the case of intra-cabinet cooperation. No such practice has been established among the political parties. Independently from the institutional issues, if the trend towards the two-party system continues in the House of Representatives, confrontation in this house will make cooperation in the other house difficult, because the competition is zero-sum for candidates in single-seat constituencies in the lower house election. The zero-sum nature of the race applies particularly to the two major parties, namely the DPJ and the LDP, which secured 95% of the seats in the 2009 general election. Under the ongoing system, the House of Representatives would need to disproportionately seek the cooperation of the House of Councillors if the House of Councillors were virtually entitled to dismiss the prime minister.

As seen above, there is an imbalance in authority and responsibility between the two houses that renders inappropriate the influence of the upper house on the appointment of the prime minister on the assumption of Japan’s constitutional structure and the existing practices among the parties. In view of the current state of the House of Councilors without involvement in the appointment of the premiership, its censure resolution should not be permitted to affect the fate of the prime minister, as it would destabilize the entire system. That could be established as a convention through an implicit agreement between the parties and by repeating the practice of not resorting to censure resolution.

As a matter of course, it is natural for disagreement to occur on policy issues between the parties, and it is naturally legitimate for the House of Councillors to call on the government to fulfill its accountability. However, the House of Representatives and the prime minister based on it are independent entities that are elected separately from the House of Councillors, and that have a different democratic legitimacy. It is therefore unreasonable and inappropriate for the speaker of the House of Councillors to have any political impact on the prime minister or to call for his resignation at his own discretion. It is unjustifiable except in very exceptional situations.

Involving a fusion of power, the parliamentary system is characteristic in that it generates very strong power that enables efficient policy operation as long as cohesion is maintained within the governing party and between the ruling parties. Despite the occasional inadequacy in the check of power between elections, the possibility of a change of government and confidence in the self-restraint of the political elites have supported the legitimacy of the parliamentary system. However, confidence in the political elites has now declined significantly. There is a great deal of concern regarding delegating power to a single political force for a certain length of time. The bicameral system is helpful for monitoring and preventing the amount of power from being too strong.

If excessive restraint leads to the instability of the prime minister’s position, it will naturally be undesirable for the entire system. It will not be possible to avoid seeing politics as dysfunctional, provided that the parties and members in the assemblies remain unchanged and the policy issues to be addressed are left unaddressed while changes of the prime minister continue. This suggests that the deficiency of Japanese politics lies not in the separation of power arising from the bicameral system, but in the instability of the administrative power held by the prime minister and cabinet.

Increasing cohesion in the political parties

A serious breakdown of the political rules is seen not only in the relationships between the two houses of the Diet or between political parties, but also within political parties. In fact, it is extremely interesting that a political party or parliamentary group takes coordinated action in the houses of parliament.

There are two main methods for ensuring the cohesion or unity of political parties in the assembly. One is the sharing of values based on the ideological commonality and socialization of Diet members. This does not mean that the political parties necessarily harmonize in terms of their values. Rather, it is the fact that it is easier to attain cohesion if there are common values. Values can be basically shared by making those who share them into Diet member candidates. There are several options for achieving this. In one case, those who have long engaged in the party’s activities in various ways may be named as candidates. In another, the party or its leaders may propose specific values to put up candidates for Diet seats. Those parties with clear orientations and values that they pursue have advantages in this respect.

In addition, the sharing of values can be boosted through the socialization of successful candidates in the houses of the Diet. This socialization is achieved through instructions and cooperation in election campaigns, proceedings, guidance on life in the Diet, and by providing opportunities for learning the party’s concepts and having their say. In addition to the values, a sense of belonging and unity within the organization are vital here.

The second approach is to provide members with and deprive them of the interests they seek. Even after achieving the sharing of values to a certain extent, Diet members may not have the same orientation as the party leadership with respect to individual policy issues and political decisions. In a party where values are not shared, agreement in terms of aims and interests is less likely. In Japanese politics, the authority to grant party endorsement and fund allocation have recently been emphasized. The party leadership is able to control Diet members’ behaviour by providing them with or depriving them of posts, money, prestigious positions and committee memberships they seek. What matters is the amount of resources held by the executives.

Under LDP rule, these functions were fulfilled by factions. The LDP factions had a certain degree of ideological unity, although this is open to debate, and fully covered the socialization function. They were sources of posts, funds and assistance with election campaigns. They supplied a large number of human resources. As a result, the direct centralization of resources to the leadership was limited within the LDP. Order within the party was maintained by the factions. The weakening of the factions has loosened both discipline and the socialization of Diet members.

The current two major parties in Japan are in need of cohesion that supersedes the factions. The concentration of power for the allocation of posts, money, assistance in election campaigns and other resources will be useful in ensuring cohesion through party discipline. It is particularly significant for increasing the foreseeability of the career paths of Diet members under the party leader after his or her position is stabilized. Party discipline will be maintained to a certain extent under the party leadership if the leader does not change and stays, or is expected to stay, in the post. This will be the case as long as Diet members, even if they are unhappy with their party leader, continue to pursue their careers. What is happening in the DPJ right now looks as if Diet members who are dissatisfied with their careers are attempting to clear the order based on the incumbent party leader and rebuild their own careers by replacing their party leader.

However, party cohesion cannot be secured merely by the discipline of granting and removing advantages. As discussed above, the sharing of values to a certain extent is also important for party cohesion.

The choices made by a political party in terms of its officially recognized candidates in elections reflects the nature of the party. Party members serving as members of local assemblies, their relatives and members of trade unions can be foreseen to become involved in specific parties. Among bureaucrats and businesspeople, that varies from individual to individual. In recent years, open invitations for candidates led by party headquarters have been increasing. In this event, party cohesion may be bolstered through value-sharing and participation, for example, by giving favorable treatment to those who once participated in party-related activities or by prompting local organizations to actively participate in the screening of applicants. The introduction of primary elections that are open to the electorate in the constituency will also stimulate the interest of locals. Although the primary elections could increase the independence of Diet members from the party, party cohesion will be secured provided that the shortlist of candidates disclosed to the local electorate is under the party’s control.

Even so, both the DPJ and the LDP are facing problems with regard to the values that should be shared. Taking economic policy as an example, the LDP is caught in a dilemma between its traditional conservatism advocating arbitrary redistribution and economic liberalism, whereas the DPJ is caught between a combination of conservatism as seen in the LDP with universalism in terms of public services as reflected in its manifesto and economic liberalism. Both fail to define their respective directions. (Of course, these ideologies are not necessarily mutually exclusive.)

With respect to the DPJ as a ruling party, its manifesto has been a focus of controversy since the establishment of the DPJ-led government. However, the policies per se stated in it are not important in relation to party cohesion. The announcement of a document does not automatically trigger efforts to reconcile the values on the basis of it. What is more significant in terms of party cohesion is to share the problems to be addressed and the vision of society to be pursued.

For instance, the DPJ-led government has introduced a child-rearing allowance scheme in a bid to address challenges such as increasing the birthrate, providing child rearing support, encouraging women to move into the labour market and developing human resources. The debate on the choice between child-rearing allowances and the increase in nursery schools is irrelevant to the issues essentially addressed with the allowances. The two options are not mutually exclusive, but complement each other. The amount of the child-rearing allowance can be changed at convenient times. The amount proposed in the manifesto is not sufficient to meet the intended objectives in any case. If the financial resources are insufficient, the scheme can be launched with a reduced amount. What must be shared within the DPJ is the values according to which the party will address the challenges as mentioned above by ensuring that society rears children. It is not always given that a consensus will be reached on such values within a political party. In the DPJ, they had to be shared, especially by means of the socialization of Diet members, and not by party discipline.

Party cohesion, or the sharing of values with others, may be attained through competition between parties. However, it is probably not a spontaneous process. The party leadership must assume the lead in achieving party cohesion.

Governance in the relationship between politics and bureaucracy

The relationship between politics and bureaucracy is the final subject reviewed in this article. It is also a major issue for the DPJ government. Originally, the party won power and sought a new policymaking model on the basis of its mistrust of administrative bureaucracy. However, no policy could be implemented without the bureaucratic organization. It is impossible for politicians to deal with every detail in the policymaking process. The bureaucrats have an information gathering function, expertise and skills in policymaking and policy implementation. They are indispensable for political management.

Having said that, problems with bureaucracy that have been identified have not yet been resolved. In particular, it is certain that the ongoing complex disaster has shown that bureaucracy has various limitations. The Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary for Crisis Management and the Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary for National Security and Crisis are essentially at the heart of the government for dealing with large-scale natural disasters and critical accidents. Setting aside the issues of politicians’ capacity and political leadership, it does not appear that these functions worked fully.

As far as the nuclear plant disaster is concerned, there was a cause that cannot be attributed to the unavoidable nature of natural disasters. Without doubt, the deficiency in terms of preparations for the disaster was primarily due to the problems with Tokyo Electric Power Co., Inc. (TEPCO), which had been allowed to enjoy a monopoly in the region it served, and with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry as the supervisory authority. Why that specific nuclear plant was located at the site in question and why the facility design was approved, including the backup system in preparation for disasters, accidents and terrorist attacks, come under the issues related to the electric power company and supervisory authority. As a matter of course, questions as to whether or not the post-disaster actions were appropriate and as to inadequacy in terms of political leadership must be studied and clarified by a research commission or other body.

However, a more essential issue is the fact that the public has left nuclear policy to some specialists, the monopolistic business and the supervisory authority. This trio and politicians, business circles, trade unions and the mass media have forged a myth of nuclear safety. It is undeniable that they have experienced brain freeze regarding the risk and hampered serious discussions on nuclear policies in an attempt to prevent them from developing into an issue. In addition to the massive advertising expenses and political donations from TEPCO as a monopolistic firm, the fact that this problem has been left unqueried must be reexamined in the future. Such policies were not formed by the present DPJ government, but rather by the previous LDP government.

Under DPJ rule, the relationship between politics and bureaucracy is actually in a very deplorable state. During the period of LDP rule, bureaucrats had exclusive ownership of information and policy options. They gave consideration to influential figures in the ruling party other than the prime minister and other ministers in the cabinet, and occasionally played a coordinating role in order to lead policy operations within the scope favored by the LDP, or by anyone in the LDP with responsibility for the domain. However, it is impossible to return to the relationship between politics and bureaucracy as in the past LDP era in light of the failure of the bureaucracy and the selection of a new policy package following the regime change.

What is sought from the administrative bureaucracy is the organizational flexibility to adapt to new policies and the suggested policy changes. After a regime change, bureaucrats are not responsible for policy discontinuity. Certainly, frequent policy changes should be avoided, and in this sense, frequent changes of the prime minister and cabinet are unfavourable. Political parties are hence required to state their consistent intentions to speak with one voice. It is a clear matter of party governance.

Conclusion: A call for new rules of the game

The picture of Japanese politics has changed dramatically in the past two decades. Improvements from the LDP-led politics of the past are being seen in numerous aspects. On the other hand, the long-established rules of the game based on single-party dominance and faction-led politics were forced to change. The rules of the game that define the order of party politics remain lost in some situations.

Under these circumstances, new rules of the game for keeping politics working are now required. The eventual rules may not be in line with the arguments made in this article. However, a consensus or compromise should be reached if a number of debates and races for legitimacy are carried out between political parties and within individual parties. The mass media should play a key role in encouraging the parties to compete with one another for legitimacy to ascertain that a specific agreement is reached.

It appears that party politics fell into disorder in the era of changes and crises, making the problems even worse. However, it is also expected that the changes and crises in contemporary politics will be surmounted.

Translated from “Atarashii ge’emu no ruru ga motomerareteiru: Nihon no seitou-seiji wo ugokasu tameni nani ga hitsuyoka,” Sekai, August 2011, pp. 130-138. (Courtesy of Iwanami Shoten) [August 2011, No. 820]