Archaic manners make Diet sessions a long ordeal for prime ministers

File photo of the Yomiuri Shimbun
The Diet Building in the Chiyoda district, Tokyo, Japan.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida must have found 2022 to be a tumultuous year. Just five months ago, when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party he leads won the House of Councilors election, some pundits said he had a strong political base and his stable administration would last at least three years.

But he has stumbled in his handling of numerous issues, such as the state funeral of slain former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the LDP’s inappropriate ties to a religious group, and whether to replace some scandal-ridden ministers of his firm. His approval rating dropped by 30 percentage points.

Although Kishida hasn’t lost credibility in the LDP and no rivals are willing to challenge his position, his cabinet will face a more difficult situation next year. This is because he has to endure the ordinary dieting session which will start in January and last for more than 100 days.

The Diet strained successive Prime Ministers and indeed sometimes overthrew their administrations. In general, their approval ratings have dropped during regular sessions, in some cases dropping by as much as 20 percentage points.

Some may wonder how this could work out in Japan’s parliamentary cabinet system, in which the prime minister is the leader of the ruling party and is supported by a majority of Diet members. In fact, the LDP and its ally, the Komeito, hold around 60% of the total seats in both chambers. Why should Kishida worry about not participating in the diet session?

One of the problems is the peculiar parliamentary procedures of the Diet. Unlike most European governments, the Japanese government has little power to set timetables or schedules for deliberation on bills. This happens in the hesitations between the parties in power and the opposition parties. Thus, the opposition has the possibility of prolonging the debates and jostling the administration. If popular opinion is against a bill or if a prime minister is at a disadvantage, the deliberation time will be extended as long as possible, making it extremely difficult for the ruling party to get the bill passed. of law.

A minister caught up in a scandal is inevitably summoned for questioning and tough criticism. In many cases, the grilling forces a troubled minister to issue an incoherent apology that sparks anxiety and discontent even within their own ruling party. The administration is obliged to decide whether to replace them or not. Most of the dismissals of ministers have occurred during a session of the Diet, as we saw in the last extraordinary session, during which three members of the Cabinet had to surrender.

All ministers, including the prime minister, are bound by lengthy deliberations on bills and budgets. Kishida has attended committees or plenary meetings of both houses for more than 80 days this year, nearly a third of all weekdays. It’s not unusual.

Other world leaders attend their own parliaments or congresses much less frequently than their Japanese counterparts. According to research by the National Diet Library, the British Prime Minister attended about 40 days, the German Chancellor about 10 days, and the Presidents of the United States and France just one day each. At a Group of Seven summit several years ago, Prime Minister Abe complained that he had spent an inordinate amount of time in the Diet, winning sympathy from other leaders.

As stated in Article 66 of the Constitution of Japan, “The Cabinet…is collectively responsible to the Diet”. Of course, this article stipulates a principle of the parliamentary system – the power of the Diet to check and balance the government. To be frank, this responsibility of the Diet has been a heavy burden not only for ministers but for the whole government. While a budget is under discussion, each ministry finds itself obliged to be ready to answer any questions from members of the opposition until late at night. This has forced government officials to endure long working hours, which can cause young bureaucrats who find it ridiculous and nothing but a waste of work to quit their jobs.

More than 75 years ago, the Imperial Diet, ancestor of today’s assembly, was more an arena of contention between members of the House of Representatives and the government than a legislative body. This tradition continues today. It is not uncommon for a committee debating a controversial bill to be paralyzed by physical resistance from the opposition camps. If houses are controlled by different parties, which has happened three times in the past two decades, unnecessary clashes lead to a political quagmire in which nothing is decided.

According to a poll by The Yomiuri Shimbun last month, the Diet ranked lowest – at 25% – in response to a question about trust in national institutions. He inspired less confidence than the Prime Minister, the courts, the Self-Defense Forces or the police. It has been one of the most unreliable organizations for over a decade. Nonetheless, the long-dominant LDP has refrained from correcting outdated Diet rules and customs as it is not easy to persuade reluctant opposition parties to follow. In addition, the LDP fears criticism for trying to push through the bills it wants to pass.

When Kishida took office last year, he pledged to promote a policy of trust and sympathy. The Diet completely lacks both. So if he is to deliver on his promise, tackling the Diet reforms that have remained untouched for many years is an essential step. He knows the flaws of Japanese politics well enough to be qualified to do the job, if he can just survive the pressure from opposition parties in the next session.

The next Political Pulse will appear on January 7.

Takayuki Tanaka

Tanaka is Senior General Manager, General Manager of Administration of the Yomiuri Shimbun. His previous position was editor-in-chief.

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