Saturday, May 17, 2008

Bowling against democracy

When not bowling together, former prime ministers Koizumi Junichiro and Mori Yoshiro apparently spend their time scheming against Japanese democracy.

Both have signed on as advisers — along with Abe Shinzo, another former prime minister from the Machimura faction — to a new LDP study group called the "Diet members league to integrate both houses of the Diet and establish a new unicameral 'People's Diet.'"

I have to concur with Yamauchi Koichi, an LDP HR member representing Kanagawa-9: this is an extremely radical group.

The league, founded by Eto Seishiro, Ota Seiichi, and other LDP Diet members, argues that if Japan were to implement a unicameral system, it would be in line with the majority of the world's countries, nearly three quarters of which have unicameral legislatures. Mr. Yamauchi retorts by noting that no member of the G7 has a unicameral system.

Mr. Yamauchi goes on to describe this proposal as "possibly giving an unfair impression" since it is being introduced after the opposition took control of the House of Councillors. I would say that "unfair" is a woeful understatement. How about anti-democratic? This desire to undermine the DPJ's control of the upper house appears to be all too common in the LDP (and Komeito), especially among senior members of both parties. Faced with its first institutional check on its power, the LDP's response has been to complain about how "useless" the HC is, how irresponsible the DPJ is, and how important it is for the LDP to be able to do whatever it feels necessary to save Japan, despite the voters having decided last year that they're not particularly pleased with the job the LDP has done to this point. Some LDP members, including the current prime minister, have taken the opposition of the public to heart and talk of the need to listen to the people; others, however, including the members of this new league, have decided that it is not the LDP but the system that's broken.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: before any specific economic or social reforms, what Japan needs is transparency and accountability in its political system, mechanisms for checking the power of the government and monitoring its policy execution. DPJ control of the upper house is a great experiment in checks and balances.

The league's proposal is not a particularly realistic one, as it would require a constitutional amendment, which would require approval of the upper house, which would in all likelihood not vote itself out of existence. (The head of the LDP's HC caucus has already voiced his opposition to this idea.)

The significance of this league is in what it says about attitudes within the LDP towards increased political competition. Some LDP members claim to want a "two big-party system" but I cannot help but wonder whether what they really want is just another one-and-a-half party system in which the opposition provides democratic window-dressing for an LDP that does whatever it wants — all in the name of "the people," of course.

1 comment:

Bryce said...

In general, I'm fairly comfortable with the idea of a unicameral legislature - but then again I grew up in a nation with one.
And to an extent, Koizumi and co are probably right. Most democracies have upper houses, but in those that do, the second chamber does not have the power or legitimacy to act as a real check on power. The United States is the exception here rather than the rule. And it seems that some of the 'people' are behind him. In a recent poll on the constitution a around 30% said that they either wanted to scrap the upper house or see its authority reduced. However most want to keep the system as it is (44.2%) or increase the powers of the HoC (17.5%).

The problem, of course, is that in unicameral systems, you need other measures to ensure transparency - a national press that is not beholden to politicians, a political culture where citizens have a real say in what goes on in the lawmaking process, debating procedures in the house that ensure that the government must answer questions put to it by the opposition and as you point out the real possibility that power can change hands. True proportional representation wouldn't be a bad thing in this regard.

I suspect that this will be one of those proposals that some people will get excited about, but it will fade into the background fairly soon.