Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, in the front row, and other Cabinet members after a no-confidence motion against the Cabinet was voted down at the Lower House’s plenary session on July 20 (Takeshi Iwashita)

The Diet, the nation’s lawmaking body defined by the Constitution as “the highest organ of state power,” is in an extremely wretched state.

The regular Diet session that ended on July 22 painted a distressing picture of the nation’s democracy sinking deeper into a crisis created by the government’s corrosive political arrogance, a product of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cynical abuse of his dominant power.

During the six-month session, the ruling camp railroaded a string of controversial pieces of legislation through the Diet--legislation for “work style reform,” a revision to the Public Offices Election Law to increase the Upper House seats by six and the bill to promote integrated resorts featuring casinos.

Meanwhile, the Diet made no serious efforts to get to the bottom of two political scandals that have cast grave doubt on the fairness of the administrative process and the credibility of politics. Nobody took political responsibility for the scandals, which involve two school operators linked to Abe--Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution--with key questions just left unanswered.

We cannot keep our heads buried in the sand and avoid confronting the grim reality of politics anymore when the evils of Abe’s long tenure, which is supported by the powerful ruling coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party, are threatening the foundation of the democratic system of government.

INSINCERITY OF THE ABE ADMINISTRATION

The Diet has become totally incapable of performing its core functions, which include keeping watch on the administrative branch’s actions and making laws through thoughtful and scrupulous debate to build broad public consensus on policy issues. The principal blame for this dire state of the Diet rests with Abe.

Since this past spring, important new revelations have emerged with regard to the scandals, which started dogging the Abe administration during last year’s regular Diet session.

As for the dubious deals over state-owned land between the administration and Moritomo Gakuen, it has been disclosed that the Finance Ministry falsified official documents approving the deals and discarded records of the negotiations.

The scandal, which centered on the suspicion that special political favors may have been given to the school operator, for which Abe’s wife, Akie, once served as honorary principal, developed into a situation that jeopardizes the people’s right to know and erodes the foundation of democracy.

Concerning the scandal over the government’s approval of Kake Educational Institution’s plan to open a new veterinary medicine faculty, documents compiled by the Ehime prefectural government that refer to Abe’s meeting with his close friend Kotaro Kake, head of the organization, and Abe’s expression of support for Kake’s faculty plan have come to light.

If these documents tell the truth, it means Abe has been lying to the public for months.

These allegations were repeatedly brought up in Budget Committee sessions at both houses and during Abe’s one-on-one debates with opposition leaders on the Diet floor. But the truth of these scandals is far from clear.

Abe and other officials made insincere attempts to duck and sidestep answers to questions about these allegations, causing much of the precious time for policy debate at the Diet to be wasted.

CHECKS-AND-BALANCES SYSTEM NEEDS TO BE REBUILT

During its investigation into the Moritomo scandal, the Diet was treated by the Finance Ministry to false answers to related questions and falsified official documents. The legislature should have responded to the treatment as one body by taking nonpartisan actions to hold the ministry accountable for its misconduct. But it is hard to argue that the ruling parties have fulfilled their responsibilities as members of the legislature.

There is a term to describe the situation where the government, especially the prime minister’s office, wields greater political power than the ruling parties--“seiko totei” (the government is high, and the party low). The current state of political affairs in Japan represents the seiko totei situation taken to the extreme, with the entire Diet--not just the ruling camp--acting as if it were a subcontractor for the Cabinet.

With Abe maintaining political dominance, the basic constitutional principle of separation of power among the three branches of government based on a system of checks and balances is at risk.

A series of political reforms during the 1990s, which introduced the current electoral system for the Lower House featuring a combination of single-seat constituencies and proportional representation, and the reorganization of the central bureaucracy under the administration of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, have sharply enhanced the power of the prime minister. This has been one factor supporting Abe’s huge political power.

During the period, there have not been correspondingly radical changes in the legislative system.

On the other hand, it has become clear that a split Diet with the Upper House under opposition control quickly creates legislative gridlock that seriously hinders the government’s policy execution.

Now it is clearly necessary to enhance the Diet’s power as the watchdog of the government and set new rules to secure a healthy checks-and-balances relationship between the administrative and legislative branches.

In the final stage of the ordinary Diet session, a rapid succession of proposals were made to reform the legislature, which reflected a sense of crisis about the current situation.

A nonpartisan group of lawmakers to reform the Lower House “before the end of the Heisei Era,” or the current emperor’s abdication, put together a set of proposals including regular debates between party heads.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan has been alarmed by the fact that most of the bills submitted by opposition parties, including one to phase out nuclear power generation, were not even considered. The main opposition party has proposed a package of measures to revitalize Diet deliberations, including the establishment of regular sessions dedicated to discussing bills submitted by lawmakers.

The Diet should act swiftly to implement the proposals on which the parties can agree. But at the same time, the ruling and opposition parties should start serious debate on possible measures to rebuild the checks and balances between the administrative and legislative branches.

LDP LEADERSHIP ELECTION WILL BE MAJOR TEST

As the Diet session has ended, the corridors of power in Tokyo will soon be bustling with all kinds of political activity related to the LDP leadership election in September.

Abe, who is seeking re-election to a third term, intends to focus on responses to recent disasters, including the epic flooding in western Japan, for the time being and then announce his candidacy in late August.

While how card-carrying local party members and registered party supporters will vote remains unclear, most LDP lawmakers believe Abe has already established himself as the clear front-runner in the race by winning support from many major factions and a majority of the LDP Diet members.

Surprisingly, there is already a lot of talk among LDP lawmakers about key party and governments posts with the assumption that Abe will be re-elected to a third term.

This seems to indicate that most LDP legislators are preoccupied with currying favor with Abe and other members of the administration’s leadership team. This atmosphere may have nurtured the development of the so-called “sontaku” political game of acting to accommodate the assumed wishes and intentions of one’s boss, a problem that came to the fore in the Moritomo and Kake scandals.

Internal affairs minister Seiko Noda sought to run in the previous LDP presidential poll three years ago but gave up the bid as she failed to secure the required formal support of her candidacy from 20 Diet members. Abe’s unopposed re-election helped further strengthen his firm grip on power.

The new LDP chief’s tenure will run until 2021. The event calendar for the period will include the scheduled imperial succession and the Tokyo Olympics.

The nation is facing a raft of challenges both on the domestic and diplomatic fronts. Lively and constructive political debate will be essential for tackling these challenges, especially during Diet deliberations.

The LDP’s leadership election will be the acid test for the future of Japanese politics, which hinges on whether it will regain the pluralism required for policymaking driven by diversity in values.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 22