Like many others, I was surprised to see the cover of the British magazine The Economist that went on sale at the end of July. It showed U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel standing next to each other, dressed in kimono with Mount Fuji in the background. The title read: "Turning Japanese." It was a warning that unless the United States and Germany act at once, they could find themselves in Japan's situation.
The illustration points at Japan's continued political paralysis and its long-term lack of any policy to restore its fiscal health. Although it is insulting, we cannot refute it. Japan is a country where prime ministers are being replaced constantly, despite severe challenges including a swelling fiscal deficit, an economy struggling to cope with a global economic crisis, a catastrophic quake and a nuclear disaster.
Before succeeding Naoto Kan as prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda showed a strong desire to form a grand coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party, the largest opposition party. In normal circumstances, it would not make sense for the two major parties, which should be vying for power, to join hands. However, at this moment, the situation in Japan is somewhat different. There is a sense of impending crisis. If nothing is done to break the impasse, politics will remain unstable, and Japan may not be able get out of the ditch in which it finds itself.
Japan is now welcoming its sixth prime minister in five years. These frequent leadership changes are a symptom of political chaos, and the ruling parties and the ousted prime ministers are not the only ones to blame. The opposition is also responsible. They have severely disrupted the governmental process, taking advantage of a twisted Diet in which they hold a majority in the Upper House.
--A fractured polity--
The issue is not just about opposition to proposed legislation. A few years ago, the appointment of the Bank of Japan governor by an LDP administration under Yasuo Fukuda was blocked by the DPJ, which controlled the Upper House. The DPJ administration of Naoto Kan was forced to dismiss senior officials, including a chief Cabinet secretary, as a result of a censure motion approved in the Upper House with the support of the LDP and New Komeito. In both cases, the opposition abused its majority in the Upper House.
The ruling and opposition parties have both experienced the pointed end of this stick, so why don't they try cooperating? The idea behind the "grand coalition" is that sharing responsibility by splitting Cabinet posts will be the best way to get people to work together.
Such an alliance would certainly be worth considering if its key policy aims could be narrowed down and its period in office limited. But is it really possible? In fact, as the LDP showed no intention of accepting the idea of a grand coalition, Noda gave up on the idea and formed his Cabinet.
The greatest obstacle is the Lower House electoral system, which is centered on single-seat constituencies. In each constituency, parties compete against one another for a single seat and in most constituencies both the DPJ and LDP field candidates. The setup can be likened to a showdown between two yokozuna in a sumo dohyo.
The current system was introduced in 1994 as part of political reforms agreed between the ruling and opposition parties under the administration of Morihiro Hosokawa. It replaced a multiple-seat electoral system. The aim was to put an end to the LDP's factional strife and to corruption. There was also hope that it could pave the way for a two-party system that would allow regime change.
Thanks partly to a newly established system of granting government subsidies to political parties, the revised electoral system has proved effective to an extent, but there have also been many negatives. Under the single-seat system, voters put more weight on which parties the candidates belong to than on the characters of the individuals involved. Personal merit becomes a less important factor in the electoral process. Lawmakers without much ability emerge and disappear, depending on the mood of the times.
Unlike during the Cold War era, when the major parties had major differences in their basic principles, the parties now share much in common, but it has become increasingly difficult to reach a consensus. Policies that may be painful to the public are tending to be shelved, a trend made worse by the ruling party's lack of a majority in the Upper House. Factional battles over the leadership of the DPJ have only intensified.
--Reform is vital--
It has been 17 years since the political reforms. The crippling of the political process is now a more serious issue than corruption. If greater awareness among politicians can improve the situation we now find ourselves in, that's fine. But, in this difficult situation, I think we have reached a stage where we must re-examine the electoral system as well as the bicameral structure of the Diet. We should embark on a "second political reform."
The Constitution should be revised to drastically change the nature of the Upper House, but there are many matters that can be changed without constitutional change, by revising laws and through agreements among the parties. We should look at alternatives to the current Lower House electoral system, such as the introduction of multiple-seat constituencies, a large constituency system in which voters can cast ballots for more than one candidate, or a combined single-seat and proportional representation system that would give priority to proportional representation.
Limited accords and cooperation between the ruling and opposition parties would be more desirable than a grand coalition, and examining ways to design the political system to encourage such comity is vital given the difficulties facing the country. The DPJ has chosen a prime minister whose abilities are unknown amid this political chaos. We have to look at more options than just a grand coalition.
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Yoshibumi Wakamiya is editor-in-chief of The Asahi Shimbun.
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