The election of the House of Councillors (not the House of Councillors election)

With less than a week to go until the House of Councillors election, needless to say there is a significant amount of analysis of the potential outcomes on many informed blogs (see the links to the right). I cannot substantively add any more to this. It does look however, that the situation could well be a bit of what we call in politics, a “mess”. Even if in my opinion the most likely option eventuates, with the DPJ just getting around 54 seats, this could lead to at best a protracted negotiation with one of either Komeito, or Your Party, or worse, a stable, functioning government – with Kamei’s PNP in it.

Against this backdrop a number of proposals have been put forward regarding the fate of the House of Councillors. Watanabe Yoshimi from Your Party has suggested eliminating the House of Councillors due to it tendency to hold up the decision making process. There has also been a number of suggestions, some emanating from the DPJ itself, floating around about reducing the number of PR seats up for grabs for similar reasons.

Here is a another, quite different, take on the issue from Takenaka Harukata at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies who has written a book about the House of Councillors. The first 3-4 pages or so are a good summary of the role of the HoC, current dilemmas and a little bit of useful history. The second half goes more into some specific possibilities.

The main insight that the author offers is that until recently the House of Councillors has, whether it be outwardly known or not, performed reasonably well in its role as a check on the tighter relationship between the Cabinet and the House of Representatives typical in parliamentary systems. Essentially, it is an additional “mirror of public opinion” and builds into the system a little bit of that US style legislative “inefficiency” to ensure legislative decision making is more deliberate and considered.

Takenaka does however go on to make a further interesting point – that the House of Councillors has only started to become more of a problematic institution in terms of ‘unnecessarily’ holding up legislative change since the evolution towards a genuine two party system began. Essentially, as two major parties consolidate their hold over the House of Representatives, the same is likely to happen in the House of Councillors. The major issue here being that the two houses’ electoral logic is similar enough so as to encourage this dynamic. While we may accept this “fate” in the case of the House of Representatives, and in fact laud it as a dynamic expression of political debate and democratic evolution, it may not be a good idea for this to become the case for both houses.

We can indeed look to the US for a good example of a differentiated two house system where both houses are considered important (cf. House of Lords) – after all, by Takenaka’s logic, although he does not specifically say so, the Japanese system is a parliamentary one with an American concern for legislative checks and balances thrown in. Essentially the Senate differs from the House of Representatives in a number of key ways – elections are held every 6 years for an individual seatby way of a state-wide vote, and every state irrespective of its population has two members so as to ensure smaller states’ rights are somewhat protected legislatively in addition to judicial protections. The last aspect of this may not be so important for Japan – indeed provincial and rural areas are already unconstitutionally overrepresented in Japan. But the first part is of interest, as it has an impact on the makeup of the membership of the US Senate.

In general, US Senators tend to be less focused on the permanent election cycle due to the longer terms (so far so good for Japan), and because they are elected on a state-wide basis, are less likely to represent specifically local concerns. Senators also tend to vote more independently of the party and the machine that got them elected in the first place – they often feel that they owe less to their respective parties than do HoR members. As the elections for the Senate are staggered, with only 1/3 up at each election, the Senate as a body is a little bit more resistant to the “national mood” and a large proportion of its membership is less likely to be swept away in a fit of electoral rage. This of course, may not always be a good thing, but either way, by historical standards, the partisanship shown in the US Senate these days is unusual. The partisanship in the US House of Representatives, is however, not all that unusual despite what many may think.

I am not yet convinced of Takenaka’s suggestion to reintroduce “Multi-Member Districts” exclusively as the solution to this problem. But I do agree with what he is aiming for – that a less explicitly partisan Upper House, more resistant to local concerns but more responsible to a broader electorate, with more independents, both in individual and party name, could well lead in the long-term lead to genuine legislative oversight being exercised by the House of Councillors. This is rather than it slowly evolving into an outgrowth of the battles being fought in the House of Representatives. Certainly partisanship will always be a feature of electoral systems – it is in human nature. Even the Meiji oligarchs could not prevent the formation of parties in the Meiji parliament despite their suspicion of them. But it is not unreasonable to set up the House of Councillors in a way that does not directly encourage this dynamic, if we already have another body that does.

Given the recent voting history of the Japanese public, essentially in 2005 and 2009 giving two different parties two very clear mandates in the HoR, and in the intervening HoC elections, giving the losing parties an “in” to cause “trouble”, this is not tolerable in the long-term. To be sure, with the historical importance of the last 5-9 years in Japanese politics it is probably to be expected and perhaps every encouraging. The DPJ and other parties might be rushing to undermine the HoC in order to establish their permanency in both houses, but maybe these is justified reason for pause. The House of Councillors is more constitutionally relevant than we may think – and thus its fate is every bit as important as a sales tax, and should be thus left up to the public to make the final decision about its abandonment or neutering.1

Perhaps rather than changing (or not) Article 9 or a full scale overhaul of the constitution,2 House of Councillors reform could be an opportunity for invoking the new constitutional referendum law. Certainly in the long-term the only way politicians are going to agree on the rules for engagement in elections is if many of the rules are enshrined in the constitution itself – there is certainly a risk that with every change of government new rules will be proposed to make the system more “fair”. It may well be that until now that the rules have not been fair and that the 1993 changes and any subsequent ones are well needed- but with every electoral cycle and subsequent change that claim becomes all the more suspicious.

1 The existence of both houses and their names are mandated in the Japanese constitution, but the method of election and various other rules are said to be defined by law.
2 Notwithstanding some sudden change in the international system, these two related issues probably require a longer period of time to see them evolve into a functional consensus worthy of voting on.

10 thoughts on “The election of the House of Councillors (not the House of Councillors election)

  1. Thanks for the link to our new content! To tell you the truth I’ve been so involved with getting this site up to speed and hiring a new translator and whatnot I haven’t been able to dig into the election dynamic so far. Hope to do at least a little of that over the next week.

    • No problem! I am so glad you guys are back up and running. In fact this works better for me now – I don’t necessarily have to go all the way over the library to get the latest 🙂

  2. “[…]giving the losing parties an “in” to cause “trouble”, this is not tolerable in the long-term.”

    Well, I don’t really see how that is not tolerable. If the above interpretation of voter intent is accurate then voters are explicitly making the upper house be a check on any policy excesses of the ruling party in the lower house. The whole point of having two houses is after all that they will represent different interests. If having one house politically at odds with the other is somehow wrong, then that means having two houses is fundamentally a bad idea.

    And to be sure, two houses isn’t necessary. My native Sweden has just one house and doesn’t seem to suffer unduly from that. Of course, it also has fairly strict proportionality, so coalition and minority governments is the norm, which in itself serves to keep check on any wild political adventures.

    • Same for New Zealand except without the strict proportionality. But, with all due respect to Sweden, both Sweden and New Zealand have evolved robust small country political cultures that support the ” democratic risk” of having only one house. For the most part, larger countries require more checks and balances. I agree it does not have to be in terms of a bicameral system, but it is one option used by many worldwide. (Another option of course is strengthening regional legislatures and giving them proper constitutional powers, such as happens in US again, Indonesia or India, or many other places – Osaka/Kansai area springs to mind in terms of a place that wants discrete constitutional powers).

      I would be hesitant however in interpreting the last 10 years as one where the Japanese public have intentionally voted to have a check on one house vis-a-vis another. These voting patterns are more likely a symptom of disenchantment with the political system rather than an expression of a strategic voting culture. Furthermore, recent HoC elections have come to reflect general elections in that single issues can come to dominate – I think that is fine for a House of Representatives which can be dissolved at any time to take the issue to the people so to speak, but the House of Councillors cannot be dissolved in such a way, thus making it quite problematic that it is elected in the way it is. In principle, fixed-term bodies should be either short, or somewhat more “conservative” (not ideologically) or “broadly” independent in terms of the membership that makes them up.

      Of course, you could say that this kind of system is democratically sub-optimal compared to a strictly unicameral PR system – but in terms of institutional stability for many countries, I don’t know if the “optimal” democratic system would be all that optimal in terms of outcome.

    • That might be true – a better option for Japan might well be to strengthen regional political structures vis-a-vis the central government to ensure that excessively local or excessively “central” interests are not represented solely. In fact I think when I was in Japan I remember seeing a proposal being put forward of dissolving the “ken” system and replacing it with political units that are made up 3-4 prefectures. If given some constitutional teeth, that could work – but I guess my point is that whatever happens in terms of abolishing the Upper House, or drastically reducing its numbers, it should be treated as a constitutional decision as it has constitutional implications (despite the general attitude towards the Upper House some may have and the historical “accidents” that may have led to its formation).

  3. Our Man always finds two chambers are better than one. While the kids sleep in one, the adults can have a beer or two in the other. Terrible to be stuck some place with a single-chamber house, you all have to go to bed at the same time. Ruins the holiday, no matter how delightful the small country.

    Hope this helps resolve a few issues for you all 🙂

    • It has 🙂 I just hope that the adults don’t stay up too late, drink too many beers and sleep in while the kids get up early and trash the place.

  4. Pingback: Making the Japanese House of Councillors’ elections 4 times more fair…. « σ1

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