Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The meaning of the Upper House election

On Thursday campaigning for the House of Councillors election scheduled for 11 July begins, as 440 candidates vie for 121 seats. (Michael Cucek has the breakdown here.)

The significance of this election has been thrown into clear relief since Kan Naoto took over from Hatoyama Yukio as prime minister and head of the DPJ. What once looked to be a referendum on the leadership of Hatoyama and DPJ secretary-general Ozawa Ichirō — a referendum that polls suggested that the DPJ would not win — is now an election on the future of Japan, perhaps to an even greater extent than last summer's historic House of Representatives election. If the DPJ can retain control of the upper chamber, it will have three years before it will have to face the voters again in an election, provided that no snap election is called in the meantime. Those are three years that the government can use to make tough political decisions that a government with a shorter time horizon might be less inclined to make, like, say, a consumption tax increase.

And so this election is critical for Japan's future. For the Japanese people, there's not much of a choice. Under the DPJ Japan now has a prime minister who is everything that his predecessor was not: Kan is clearly willing to take a position, stick to it, and make his government follow along. He is devoted to clean politics and dynamic political leadership, and under his watch the DPJ once again looks like a party capable of bringing substantial change to how Japan is governed.

Much of the discussion during the campaign will focus on the government's plans related to the consumption tax and deficit reduction more broadly. But once again this election is less about the competing policies offered by the DPJ, the LDP, and the smaller parties than about how Japan is governed. The choice is between unified DPJ government that will face few institutional checks as it attempts to introduce sustainable growth, sustainable government finances, and sustainable social security and a divided system in which the government will have to cobble together working coalitions in order to pass legislation in the upper house (or use its lower house majority to pass legislation over the upper house's objections).

In other words, voters have to decide whether they're willing to tolerate an "elective dictatorship" for the next three years as the Kan government sets to work implementing the DPJ's modified but still ambitious political program or whether they would prefer that the LDP, Your Party, Komeitō, and the other parties retain a perch from which to challenge the government and retard its progress.


Fat Tony said...

Careful, Tobias. Sarah Palin will be on your case.

To be an "elective dictatorship,"* the DPJ would need to develop some form of cabinet cohesion, collective responsibility, and the pretense that the ministers aren't all out to get the top job (cf. Australia's Gillard until yesterday). I don't think Japan is quite there yet. There is too much ministerial autonomy.

*A term I'm uncomfortable with; Having been steeped in the Westminster tradition, I would simply call such an arrangement "government" - an executive head who is almost impossible to remove for four years sounds more like a dictatorship to me.

Mak said...

Japan's political turmoil stems from the patron-client relationship with the US. Look, the DPJ has become the LDP. The talks on 10% would be a rhetoric, but Kan's current ideas on Okinawa is not. The meaning of elections, as soon as the LDP was overthrown, has been how to regain an independent government of the Japanese people, by the Japanese people, for the Japanese people.