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Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010



No easy way out of 'twisted' Diet

Upper, Lower houses too similar in nature, functions

Staff writer

The Democratic Party of Japan has faced a divided Diet since its ruling coalition lost its Upper House majority in July's election. While the DPJ-led coalition retains a majority of seats in the more powerful Lower House, the opposition now controls the other chamber, giving it the power to veto the bills that reach it.

News photo
All tangled up: Prime Minister Naoto Kan speaks at the Upper House on Friday. KYODO PHOTO

As a result, the DPJ will have to negotiate with the opposition to pass legislation, the first priority being the supplementary budget it intends to enact during the current extraordinary session through Dec. 3.

But with the DPJ lacking the two-thirds Lower House majority needed to override Upper House votes, the ruling camp could wind up stuck in a stalemate, unable to pass the budget and related bills by the end of the fiscal year next March 31.

As for the opposition parties, they must determine how hardline a stance to adopt in dealing with the ruling coalition and to what extent they should compromise, given the sluggish economy, diplomatic tensions and a host of pressing issues.

Below are some questions and answers regarding the divided Diet:

What is a divided Diet?

The term for the phenomenon, "nejire Kokkai" (twisted Diet), was coined by the media for when the Upper and Lower houses are controlled by opposing sides.

This occurred in 2007 when the DPJ crushed the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling coalition in the Upper House election and assumed a majority in the chamber.

The DPJ went on to gain control of both chambers with its victory in last year's general election, but handed the reins to the Upper House back to the opposition camp, the LDP being the main force, last July.

Of the 480 seats in the Lower House the DPJ currently holds 307 while laying claim to 106 of the 242 Upper House seats. Because the Constitution stipulates that legislation must clear both chambers to be enacted, the DPJ will have to rely on cooperation from the opposition to pass bills through the Upper House.

The Constitution also states that if the Upper House vetoes a bill or takes too long to vote on legislation, the Lower House can override it on condition the bill is approved by at least two-thirds of its lawmakers.

During the divided Diet that followed the LDP-New Komeito coalition's loss of its Upper House majority in 2007, the ruling camp had a two-thirds Lower House majority and used this provision to force through a number of bills.

Since the DPJ currently lacks a two-thirds majority, it will have to seek alliances with opposition parties to clear legislation.

What happens in a divided Diet?

In the past, a divided Diet encouraged the ruling and opposition parties to form policy alliances, eventually triggering a political realignment and the reorganization of the ruling coalition.

The first such change happened in 1989 when the LDP lost its Upper House majority in an election.

The LDP shook hands with Komeito and the now-defunct Democratic Socialist Party to enact the International Peace Cooperation Law, which allowed the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces abroad to participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations. In 1998, the LDP-led coalition government again lost a majority in the Upper House and was forced to cooperate with the opposition to pass the opposition-sponsored Financial Reconstruction Law. The following year, the now defunct Liberal Party, led by Ichiro Ozawa, and New Komeito joined hands with the LDP to form a new coalition.

What is unique about Japan's bicameral system?

Smaller nations, including Sweden and Denmark, as well as New Zealand, have unicameral legislatures. Large European countries, including France, Italy, Germany and Britain, as well as the United States and many other nations, operate under a bicameral system.

But bicameral systems in these nations come in various types, with the U.S. and Germany, for example, adopting a federal political structure, while in Britain the upper chamber, or House of Lords, includes hereditary peers and traditionally represents the aristocracy while its counterpart, the House of Commons, is directly elected.

Experts say Japan's Upper House, when compared with the bicameral systems of Britain and France, is unique in that its function is similar to that of the Lower House.

And while a divided legislature is not uncommon in other bicameral systems, most, unlike Japan, have a built-in system to promote consensus-building between the ruling and opposition parties, and thus the level of political stagnation seen in Japan is a rarity elsewhere.

Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, says Japan is rare among bicameral systems because its Upper House lawmakers are elected entirely via democratic means.

Nakano said that while members of Britain's House of Lords are largely hereditary or appointed, those who sit in the French Senate are also indirectly elected by local elected officials, giving them only limited authority.

While in the past there has been talk of rewriting the Constitution to abolish the Upper House and create a unicameral system, or to search for ways to develop a distinctive identity for the chamber to differentiate it from the Lower House, no concrete measures have yet been undertaken.

What is the solution for a divided Diet?

Since the Upper House can't be dissolved, the situation will continue for at least another three years until the next Upper House election — unless a snap election of the Lower House is held and a different party takes the reins of government, a grand coalition is formed or a political realignment takes place.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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