Friday, November 30, 2007

A necessary revision

In light of the ongoing speculation about the probability and timing of a snap election, it is worthwhile to step back and consider structural flaws in how Japanese governments are formed.

Why, after all, should Mr. Fukuda's government function on the basis of a parliamentary majority secured more than two years ago under his predecessor before last? What mandate does Mr. Fukuda have to govern? For that matter, what mandate did Mr. Abe have to govern? This is a flaw of parliamentary systems. Why should executive power be handed from one leader to another, like an heirloom, without the people being consulted whether they're still content with the governing party?

While constitution revision is, for the moment, off the table, perhaps the Japanese constitution needs an amendment that will give the public some oversight over the process of selecting prime ministers. In place of the occasionally suggested direct election of the prime minister, which is inconsistent with Japan's (admittedly incompletely) Westminster democracy, a revised constitution could approximate direct election by making a general election compulsory within a given period of time following the election of a new prime minister in the Diet.

A prime minister should earn his own governing majority, and the composition of the House of Representatives should reflect prevailing political conditions. If asked, the public may always accept the Diet's choice of prime minister and give the new government a majority, but the Japanese people should at least be consulted.

I am not automatically against constitution revision — no document should be so sacrosanct that it cannot be altered to reflect new realities. A problem with contemporary Japanese politics is that the idea of constitution revision has been hijacked by the ultra-nationalists, who have prioritized revisions that will have little practical impact on the workings of the Japanese government. There is a dire need for political change — including constitution revision — that will make the Japanese political system more open and more reflective of the concerns of the public.

Of course, it's probably too much to expect the political elite to push for this manner of constitution revision. And as a practical matter, Mr. Fukuda and the LDP are in no hurry to ask the Japanese people for a new mandate for governing.


vincent said...

Indeed what mandate has Fukuda or had Abe? In 2005 the people voted en masse for Koizumi and his postal privatization plans. Nobody voted for Abe's ultraconservative agenda nor for the consensus minded Fukuda. I think it is very odd that the leader from the biggest party becomes also the prime minister. A party leader should lead his party, not the government.

The logic thing for Fukuda to do should be to dissolve the Lower House. Fukuda has no mandate to use the 2/3 super majority in the Lower House to push through that were voted down by the Upper House.

James said...


The Prime Minister has a mandate from the Diet. It is not a flaw of the Westminster system that the Prime Minster does not have (or need) a direct mandate from the people. That is how the system is designed to work.
Local members have a direct mandate from the people for a certain period of time, not for the duration of the current government. Whilst a Prime Minister has the confidence of the house, he has a mandate. You may think that this should be changed, but it is not a flaw in the system. It is the system.

Japan Observer said...

I do recognize that the basis for the prime minister's mandate is the Diet — and that's the problem.

Hence the need for a constitutional amendment that will change the system to introduce some degree of accountability by forcing the prime minister to earn the support of the people.

The mandate would still stem from the composition of the Diet, but at least the makeup of the Diet would reflect the people's judgment of the new premier and his agenda.

Bryce said...

I'm quite comfortable with the current system, thank you very much. (And let's not forget that it took Koizumi one-and-a-half years to call an election, so he isn't entirely free from the aspersions being cast.)  I think leaders in parliamentary systems are far more accountable than those in presidential systems for the usual reasons: responsibility for answering questions in the house from hostil opposition members (not sycophantic media); the constant threat of removal from office, etc.

I know that you are not advoctaing a cookie cutter presidential system modelled after the U.S., but I think installing PM by popular vote would have much the same effect. The Prime Minister would be confered with a degree of insulation from his peers in the house - the people have put him there after all - and would thus be less susceptible to scrutiny in the middle of his term.

Also, under such a system, PMs would more likely be shallow populists. I certainly wouldn't want Japan to be governed for four years by a President/elected PM Ishihara, a President Tanaka (Makiko) or (ick) a President Mori without recourse to an election. You may find may choice of Mori a bit strange, but he WAS the last PM before Koizumi to take the issue of his leadership to the country (and he won).

Bryce said...

"by forcing the prime minister to earn the support of the people."

Sorry to bang on about this, but elected officials only "earn the support of their people" once or twice during their times in office (and that's when the voting machines are properly rigged). Prime Ministers, although indirectly elected, are often removed when they become unpopular.

Bryce said...

Tobias, could you change this:

"President Mori without recourse to an election"

to this:

"President Mori without recourse to removal in the middle of their terms"

Japan Observer said...


I agree that parliamentary systems are more accountable than presidential systems. (Indeed, the past six years have been a lesson in the consequences of a presidential system's dearth of accountability opportunities.)

I also share your fear of populists being the only type of leader able to succeed in such a system, although I also fear that the public would simply ratify the choice of the Diet — look at the support enjoyed by recent prime ministers at the outset of their terms — nullifying the point of the exercise.

On the other hand, making elections coincide with the selection of a prime minister could lead the governing party to tie its fate to that of its leader, possibly encouraging longer premierships and top-down leadership.

I certainly don't think fixed terms are the answer. Sometimes a snap election is the only way to break a deadlock.

Anyway, I recognize the problems with this idea, I was just tossing it out as a way to think about these problems.

Bryce said...

Yes, it's been out there before.

I don't think Japan's woes can be fixed by tinkering around with the Westminster system. There are Westminster-style systems in Canberra, Wellington and, err, Westminster, and all have elected long serving PMs. I think the answers you are looking for might have already been given. The old electoral system exacerbated factional politics by pitting members of the same party against each other in multi-member seats. Although the system was (mostly) reformed in the 1990s, there is still a culture of factionalisation in the LDP in part because that's the way they have always done things. Until the old guard dies out, or until there is some sort of major shake-up along ideological lines (which many pundits seem to be hoping for), we may just be stuck with it, no matter how much the system is tinkered with.