Saturday, June 23, 2007

Can the Communist Party Help the LDP-Komeito Coalition?

Bryan Walsh produces a TIME article on the Japanese Communist Party that identifies it as the go-to party for people whose patience with the mainstream political parties has reached its limits. In fact, in the 1998 Upper House election, a tanking economy and a consumption tax hike allowed the JCP to pick up 15 seats, giving it a total of 23, at the time one more than the now LDP coalition partner Komeito. The voting system for the Upper House has changed somewhat since then. Still, with the enigmatic DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa running well behind the beleaguered Prime Minister Abe in the latest Yomiuri poll (feel-good percentage: Mr. Ozawa 23%, Mr. Abe 35%), a lot of those unaligned voters could vote again for the JCP.

What then, are the consequences of the JCP siphoning off the protest votes from the DPJ? After all, t's not as if the JCP will enter into an unholy union with the LDP-Komeito coalition, will it? As veteran journalist Sam Jameson patiently pointed out to me when I foolishly challenged his formidable knowledge of the Japanese Constitution (as with everything Japanesy), the Lower House can overturn an Upper House vote or, in the absence of an Upper House vote, revote after sixty days, to enact any bill without the consent of the Upper House. And the requirement is a two-thirds supermajority, which the current coalition does have, which is why Sam made this point.

But as we agreed then (I think), the composition of an Upper House opposition majority does matter. For if the LDP maintains a plurality of the seats in the Upper House, it will enable them to maintain control of the House Presidency and a host of important committee chairmanship assignments. That should make it easier to keep the legislative process flowing. The ruling coalition does not want to have to wait sixty days on each and every issue before it can force it to a vote in the Lower House. It won't have to do that if it can control the flow, and that plurality will be much easier to maintain if the JCP splits the protest vote.

In 1998, the LDP muddled along under Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi for almost six months with an Upper House minority before cobbling together a shifting coalition, ending up with the current cohabitation with the Komeito that has lasted for the last seven years. But none of the opposition parties threatened to take a plurality at the time.


Ross said...

I have thought about the lower house's ability to bypass the upper house should the coalition lose that chamber next month. It is wrong to think that the LDP-Komeito 2/3rds majority in the lower house will be able to act as a functional government. First, pushing legislation through over the concerted opposition of the upper house will not do the cabinet's dismal approval ratings any good. Moreover, 60 days is quite a long time in legislative session terms and will be tricky to deal with to pass anything by the end of this year's session. That gives the coalition all of 2008. And with a lower house election needed by Sept 2009, the coalition is going to be loathe to force through anything that doesn't get some support from outside the coalition.

I don't think this particular power has even been used before. And I don't expect it to be used now. Expect an arrangement similar to the last time, 1989, this happened. Then the LDP could reach out to particular opposition parties, depending upon the issue, and get the upper house votes it needed.

Was the 60-day, second vote power ever employed by the LDP between 1989 and 1993 when it did not have an upper house majority? I really don't think so. This time the JSP won't be at all accommodating, the JCP never was, the Komeito is already bought off, and the DSP is in the DPJ so that outreach won't work.

If it does come to having to manage a minority govt of sorts in the upper house Abe is not the skilled legislative operator to handle that touchy situation. It should be fun to watch the LDP manage this one.

Sidenote: as examples to think about situations in which more powerful chambers in bicameral systems have found it difficult to exert themselves, think about the difficulty that Germany's lower house has had sidestepping the ostensibly federally oriented upper house in the postwar era or of the rise of Japan's lower house under the 1889 constitution.

Jun Okumura said...

You're very convincing, Ross, as usual. And if the Upper House LDP maintains a plurality but the coalition is unable to cobble together a majority, the party rank-and-file will be loathe to support the kind of confrontational approach that would be required to speed up procedures in either House to force second votes in the Lower House.

Let me see, if the Utsukushii Kuni is to be believed, Mr. Abe's main interests are constitutional amandment, education, and the national safety net. He can claim, to his personal satisfaction at least, that he's put the first one in play with the national referendum law, that he's laid the foundations for the second with the revision of the main education acts, and that he will, knock on wood, have put into place legislation for the national pension system what previous administrations had failed to do. So, in the event of a serious defeat, if he chose to resign, he could claim the kind of legacy that a couple of powerful prime ministers whose incumbendcy was cut short because of measures they took that were deeply unpoular with the electorate, namely, his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi (revision of the Japan-US Security Treaty, 1960)and Noboru Takeshita (introduction of the consumption tax 1989). People have always wondered if he has the fire in the belly most people need to grab and maintain power. So, beyond the skill factor on managing around an Upper House minority, there's the question of desire.