Showing posts with label Japanese Diet. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Japanese Diet. Show all posts

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ozawa whips the DPJ and the Diet into shape

Speaking at a convention of the Osaka branch of the DPJ, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano Hirofumi spoke succinctly of the role of the DPJ's backbenchers in the new government. Hirano said that not only is it unnecessary for DPJ backbenchers to ask questions in Diet proceedings, but also the DPJ's many first-term Diet members should be focused on consolidating their support bases in their districts.

Welcome to life in Japan's emerging Westminster system, in which the job of backbenchers is — contrary to the argument made by Paul Scalise and Devin Stewart that a major problem with Japanese politics is backbenchers lacking policymaking resources (discussed here) — to show up and vote as the party, acting at the behest of the cabinet, requests.

Hirano's remarks dovetail with Ozawa Ichiro's unfolding plans to reform the mechanics of the Diet. Upon his return from Britain last month, Ozawa outlined plans to revise the Diet law to, among other things, prohibit testimony by bureaucrats so to strengthen debate among legislators. (This ban would also prevent officials of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau — a longtime Ozawa target — from appearing as witnesses in the Diet.) Ozawa also wants to trim the number of Diet committee members so that Diet members can focus on a specific policy area instead of dividing their time between multiple committees — and he wants cabinet and sub-cabinet officials to participate in committee deliberations so to clarify government policies for legislators.

Ozawa met with the secretaries general of the SDPJ and the PNP, the DPJ's coalition partners last week to discuss his plans for revising the Diet law, although the SDPJ is skeptical of the need to revise the law and it seems unlikely that revising the law will figure highly on the Diet agenda for the forthcoming extraordinary session after Hirano met with Yamaoka Kenji, the DPJ's Diet affairs chair, and suggested that the bill should be delayed until next year's ordinary session.

Ozawa is otherwise working to consolidate control of the DPJ caucus and to exclude the ruling parties from the policymaking process. Concerns about Ozawa's forging a dominant Ozawa faction out of the so-called "Ozawa children" seem to be giving way to complaints that Ozawa is consolidating his control of the DPJ and the Diet through more conventional means. Ozawa has announced the lineup of the new party executive, and is being criticized for streamlining the party leadership by folding up a number of deputy leadership posts and concentrating party in his hands and in the hands of Koshiishi Azuma, an upper house member who is not a longtime Ozawa loyalist but who has reportedly moved closer to Ozawa in recent years. (It is less than clear who is doing the criticizing: the conservative press or DPJ malcontents who would prefer to remain anonymous.) There is a greater number of upper house members among party members tapped for leadership posts, which may simply reflect the importance of the upper house for moving the government's agenda. According to Mainichi, six of ten members of the party executive are upper house members. Ozawa was also less concerned about preserving balance among the DPJ's different groups, and did not include party members from groups that have opposed him in the past, most notably Edano Yukio, a senior party member who was given neither a cabinet post nor a party leadership post.

Far from wanting to forge first-termers into a force capable of controlling the policy agenda, Ozawa does not want to see first-term DPJ members in Nagata-cho: Ozawa's group for first-term members has been suspended, and Ozawa has commanded first-termers to focus on political activities in their own districts, telling them "the work of a freshman member is to win the next election."

It is not only first-term DPJ members who have to fear Ozawa. At the meeting with his SDPJ and PNP counterparts last week, Ozawa flatly rejected an SDPJ request to convene a regular meeting among the governing parties to coordinate coalition parties, saying that it was for precisely that reason that the SDPJ's Fukushima Mizuho and the PNP's Kamei Shizuka were included the cabinet, rendering an extra-governmental meeting of secretaries general at best irrelevant and at worst harmful to cabinet government.

For all the concerns that surrounded Ozawa's appointment as DPJ secretary-general, one month into the Hatoyama government it appears that many of them were overblown. As was becoming clear even before the government took power, Ozawa sees his job as ensuring that the ruling party and the Diet are not obstacles to the cabinet's implementing its policy agenda. Ozawa has been largely silent — at least publicly — on policy questions and at every opportunity has stressed the importance of enhancing the cabinet's ability to govern. Far from dictating terms to the government, Ozawa has thus far been nothing but loyal to the Hatoyama government. There is plenty of time for that to change, but sooner or later Ozawa critics who argued that Ozawa's "army" of youngsters would be a DPJ version of the Tanaka faction will have to admit that they were mistaken about Ozawa's intentions.

Ozawa's role as the buckle linking cabinet to ruling party and Diet is critical, but ultimately he is working to strengthen the cabinet, not to undermine its power.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Banning hereditary politicians

Koga Makoto, the LDP's chief election strategist, spoke in Fukuoka on Monday, where he suggested that the government might not wait until September 2009 to call an election after all. He noted that the prime minister might instead decide to call an election in early 2009, before the start of the ordinary Diet session, or in March or April following the passage of next year's budget.

But the more interesting portion of his remarks pertained to the role of hereditary Diet members. A recent column by Shiota Ushio in Toyo Keizai notes that there are 180 hereditary members between the upper and lower houses, amounting to a quarter of the total membership of the two houses of the Diet. Of the past ten prime ministers, all but Murayama Tomiichi and Mori Yoshiro have been second- or third-generation members of the Diet. 40% of LDP members of the Diet are, according to Shiota, hereditary Diet members.

Mr. Koga, not a hereditary politician himself, sees this as a problem. Indeed, he sees the prevalence of hereditary members within the LDP as a source of the party's fragility.

"Hereditary Diet members are not well acquainted with hardship — born in Tokyo, raised in Tokyo. Even if theirs is a rural electoral district, they don't really understand the area. This has led to the LDP's weakness."

Undoubtedly a certain portion of the party sees the matter differently.

Has the LDP been mortally wounded by its hereditary members? Would the LDP have governed differently, especially over the past twenty years, had its ranks been filled with more members who hadn't been born into politics? The LDP is weak not because its members are weak (or weak-headed), but because the system it engineered and used to stay in power is crumbling. One could even argue that hereditary politicians make better politicians, having learned the art of politics from a young age. (I don't actually believe this, but one could logically make the argument. Why don't I believe it? Exhibit one: Abe Shinzo. Exhibit two: the Hatoyama boys.) Non-hereditary members are little better. "Understanding the area," in Mr. Koga's terms, has often meant knowing the right people to deal with when it comes to rounding up votes and passing out favors (AKA public funds). No group of politicians is inherently better or worse than the other.

It is with this in mind that I read a recent Mainichi editorial on a proposal being mooted by the DPJ. A subcommittee of the party's headquarters of political reform headed by Noda Yoshihiko, charged by reviewing the Public Office Election law, wants to submit a bill to the autumn extraordinary session that will make it illegal for children to run in seats once held by their parents. (I suppose the bill would apply only to parents and children. No word on whether this would apply to other relatives [grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.].) Mr. Noda hopes to secure LDP agreement on this issue. Mainichi applaudes this idea, and suggests that even if the bill doesn't become law, the DPJ should go ahead and write this provision into the DPJ's party laws, noting that this is a good way for the DPJ to distinguish itself from the LDP. Given the aforementioned ratio of hereditary to non-hereditary Diet members in the LDP — not to mention that presence of hereditary members in important positions in the DPJ — this bill is unlikely to be introduced to or passed in the Diet. And it won't make it into the party rules.

Is this such a bad thing? The Mainichi editorial suggests that the rise of the hereditary member is indicative of a drying up of the political talent pool. But is the prevalence of hereditary members a cause or an effect of the lack of talented candidates for public office? Does the party turn to hereditary members because it can't find anyone else, or do good people stay away from politics because of corruption, the inheritance of Diet seats included?

But as I argued before, hereditary members are not inherently better or worse than non-hereditary members, and I'm not certain that Mr. Koga's claim that hereditary members are more out of touch from their districts than non-hereditary members is true. I suppose that the reason why people — and Mainichi — have a problem with hereditary members is not that they dilute the talent of the political class or anything like that, but that they are an offense to democratic sensibilities. And they are! If hereditary members are not inherently superior to non-hereditary members, why not give non-hereditary candidates a chance to screw up rob the people blind represent the people. Some readers may recall that I had a certain grudging respect for the late, unlamented Matsuoka Toshikatsu, who clawed his way into politics and who was sacrificed in order to save the government of Mr. Abe, that exemplar of hereditary politicians.

But it seems to me that a bill along the lines suggested by Mr. Noda and encouraged by Mainichi would be unconstitutional. The first part of article 14 of the constitution reads, "All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin." Banning second- or third-generation politicians from running in certain districts looks to me like discrimination in political relations based on family origin.

The Japanese people will have to continue to tolerate the presence of hereditary politicians in their midst. After all, it is the people who are responsible for the existence of hereditary Diet members. Mainichi neglects to mention this, instead pointing to the advantages enjoyed by hereditary members in terms of money, name recognition, and preexisting campaign organizations. But the people still ultimately have a choice whether to elect a hereditary politician.

Instead of banning hereditary members, perhaps Mr. Noda and the DPJ should consider more substantial revisions to Japan's election laws that make it easier for challengers to contend with hereditary politicians. Why not lift restrictions that make it difficult for candidates to interact with voters one-on-one? Why not loosen restrictions on when, where, and how a candidate can compete for public office — Japan's incumbency protection laws? Arguably the job security enjoyed by incumbent Diet members is a greater threat to Japanese governance than hereditary Diet members.

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.