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Junji Annen

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A twisted Diet is the reality at hand-is it the end of the Westminster model?

Junji Annen
Professor of Constitutional Law, Chuo Law School, Chuo University

When did the House of Councilors receive the fiscal budget?

House of Councilors President Takeo Nishioka is now claiming that the House of Councilors received the fiscal 2011 budget from the House of Representatives on March 2, not on March 1 on which the budget cleared the House of Representatives. Though Nishioka seems to think that the date of receipt at the House of Councilors is determined by the intention of the House of Councilors, this thought is unreasonable from a legal viewpoint. If his thought is acceptable, the provision of the Constitution that stipulates so-called automatic enactment of budgets to prevent the House of Councilors from shelving bills could become a dead law.

This case, however, involves a problem beyond the scope of legal interpretation. Japan's political reform beginning in the 1990's is clearly modeled on the British political system (also called the Westminster model after the palace in which Parliament is convened). The Westminster model is based on the two-party system with changes of government taking place regularly. The British prime minister, the leader of the majority party in the Lower House, controls legislative and administrative powers and aggressively carries out policies promised to the nation as a manifesto during the general election. The Westminster model reminds us of influential politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. The Nishioka case indicates that neither government of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) nor Prime Minister Kan can effectively control the President of the House of Councilors who is also a member from DPJ, and further that the Westminster model does not work well.

Pursuing the Westminster model

Looking back, it is fair to say that Japan has spent most of its modern era in pursuing the Westminster model. In 1879 (the 12th year of the Meiji Period), Fukuzawa Yukichi wrote Transition of People's Way of Thinking [Minjyo Isshin] to introduce the British political system, in which the government smoothly changes between two major parties (old-guard and reformist parties) according to the result of general election (though a little idealized), as an example that Japan should follow. Japan's subsequent political history, on the whole, seems to follow the path advocated by Fukuzawa, regardless of whether it is accidental or intentional.

Of course, Japan's party government did not realize the Westminster model completely even during its peak period from the end of the Taisho period to the beginning of the Showa period. At that time, non-elective sections such as the House of Peers, the Privy Council, and the military had broad authority guaranteed by the Constitution, limiting the ability to overcome such a circumstance through the application of the law. Further some changes of government between the Seiyu-kai[a conservative party founded in 1900] and the Constitutional Democratic Party, the two major parties of that time, were caused not by the result of a general election, but by the ruling party's losing power and becoming the opposition party due to scandals.

Under the Constitution of Japan, the parliamentary cabinet system is already a given fact rather than an object to be pursued, and comes to a stage at which its reality should be considered. Obviously, the establishment of two parties, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Social Party of Japan, in 1955 was regarded as an essential stepping-stone to the Westminster model. However, this never led to a change of government. In fact, in the middle of the 1980's, researchers on Japanese politics in America pointed out that the LDP government was not semi-permanent but permanent. That is, the two-party system, which is equal to change of government, is still an object to be pursued. Eventually, the small-constituency system, which had been expected as a trigger, was introduced into the House of Representatives in 1994, and then change of government between the ruling and opposition parties occurred in 2009 as a result of the general election. It took 130 years from Fukuzawa Yukichi's Transition of People's Way of Thinking [Minjyo Isshin] to realize a two-party system.

Does politics really need a model?

As is widely known, the background of the Nishioka case is a powerful House of Councilors. This is much different from the British political system, where the Upper House (the House of Lords) has less political power. However, I do not think we should decrease the power of the House of Councilors to restore the Westminster model. Also I do not agree with the familiar idea that Japan should develop its unique long-term vision without imitating foreign political systems. I doubt that politics truly needs a model of grand design to begin with.

Politics is an arena with all kinds of naked ambition. Politicians are not the only ones with strong ambition. We common folk enjoy talking about politics at the barber shop and have fond hopes for the politics. In the world of politics, it is natural that some laugh and others cry whichever scheme is developed. I think win-win politics is impossible from the get-go.

Though liberalism and democracy form a line drawn in the sand, there are variations of the political system. An important thing is that none of these variations can bring about a satisfactory result for everyone. When Saionji Kinmochi was asked about the essence of politics, he answered that it was important to fulfill the task at hand. A twisted Diet is the current reality at hand. Though people discuss many corrective measures against twisting including constitutional amendments and simultaneous elections for the House of Councilors and House of Representatives, we have no alternative but to fulfill these tasks anyway while keeping the Diet twisted.

It is said, for example, that the Act on Special Provisions Concerning Government Bonds is unlikely to be passed. If the act is actually not passed, how are we managing cash flow? Considering the task at hand rather than discussing the pros and cons of the Westminster model is far more useful in honing our political sense.

Junji Annen
Professor of Constitutional Law, Chuo Law School, Chuo University
The author was born in Hokkaido in 1955, and received a bachelor's degree from the Faculty of Law at the University of Tokyo in 1979. After working as an assistant on the Faculty of Law at the University of Tokyo, an assistant professor in the School of Law at Hokkaido University, and a professor on the Faculty of Law at Seikei University, he took up his current position as a professor in the Chuo Law School at Chuo University in 2007. Professor Annen specializes in constitutional law and comments on reform of the judicial system and Article 9 of the Constitution. He is also versed in administrative law, civil law, law and economics, and intellectual property law, and appeared as a regular commentator in the TBS morning program Ichi-ban!, in 2002. Recently, he has been appointed as a member of various government affiliated councils including the Council for Regulatory Reform, and he is also in charge of screening administrative institutions and regulations. His major works include Legal Navigation [Hogaku Nabigeshon] and Constitution [Kempo] (1) (2) (Yuhikaku Publishing, co-author).