Monday, December 03, 2007

Democracy Exhausted

On July 5 of this year the members of both the Houses sat wriggling in their seats, waiting for permission to leave.

The Diet session had been extended; the House of Councillors election pushed back; time was running out.

Before the members could rush the exits to start campaigning, however, they had to endure a closing ceremony with remarks from House of Representatives Speaker Kōno Yōhei and House of Councillors Speaker Ōgi Chikage.

A simple, trite dribble of inanities, thanking everyone for his or her effort, wishing fond wishes of "good luck and may the best man/woman win on July 29"--nothing fancy, nothing memorable, just "Hello. Goodbye. Well Met. Gambatte!" was what Diet members were expecting.

It was not to be.

Kōno, who spoke first, was almost wistful in administering the first slap:

"This last session has forced me to rethink management of the Diet both in terms of method and purpose (arikata)."
Yes, becoming the target of a censure motion by the opposition does tend to make Speakers feel rather under appreciated.

Ōgi, a former Takarazuka showgirl who was retiring from politics, chose to be far less discrete in her validictory address:

"There were times when the House of Councillors did not resemble a 'House of Worthies.' Let us see to it that the next House of Councillors responds more clearly to the needs of the citizens."
Kōno and Ōgi served notice. "Your performances were disgraceful, all of you," was the message.

If that is what the pair of them thought then, imagine what they must be thinking now!

(The Diet members should thank their lucky stars they do not have Ōgi around anymore to come and rain hellfire upon their heads.)

Over the weekend, the Japan Observer wondered aloud whether or not the rules of the game ought to be changed in order to press legislators into cooperating for the national good. Unfortunately, the suggestion generates a classic "putting the bell on the cat" dilemma--in order to revise the Constitution you need the cooperation of the very individuals whose powers would be circumscribed by the revision.

The legislative constipation over the Indian Ocean dispatch has shown that what is important to the political class right now is not having the right policies but having the right stances. Both the DPJ and the LDP are obsessed with positioning themselves for "the next election"--probing, searching for the fulcrum point allowing the candidate of one party to lever his/her opponent out of a seat.

Politics has deteriorated into non-stop electioneering. Should we be surprised that what ensues is intransigence for the sake of effect?

Radical idealists argue for a cure worse than the disease. Problems created by elections somehow can only be solved by even more elections. The ink on the newspaper reports of the DPJ's victory on July 29 was not even dry when commentators began baying for a House of Representatives election. What would that have solved? Frittering away the coalition's 2/3 majority in the House of Representatives would only make the political deadlock tighter.

Unfortunately for Japan, the country in a similarly bad bind is the United States. The electoral college system and the polarization of the South have transformed the race for U.S. president into the cementing of vast defensive formations with minor political skirmishes in a handful of political no-man's-lands. A deadened Congress, hemmed in by the ridiculous cloture rule of the U.S. Senate, finds itself unable to challenge the puny might of an imperious and freakishly unpopular Administration.

The politicians and the people in both countries expend their energies coping with their democracy's defects--leaving them no time to enjoy any of democracy's fruits. Like the LNG tankers that have to consume a significant portion of their cargoes just to keep the natural gas they are carrying cool, Japanese and American democracies consume most of their energy (in Japan's case all of its energy) combating the consequences of their own attributes.

The current highly enervated and ultimately draining stasis mocks the generations who craved democracy. Not anarchic, abstract freedom, mind you, but democracy -- which, as opposed to authoritarianism, provides a pathway to achieving progress and social justice.

It seems that democracy is not just rule by the people but rule by the people with a progressive agenda. A Turkish scholar, examining democratization in two large, non-Euro-American (non-Arab, Muslim) states with a history of military interventions and overthrows of democratic rule, found that:

A deeper question persists as to what the majority of Turks and Indonesians understand by democratization. There is reason to believe that, when most Turks and Indonesians express support for democratic reforms, they are really communicating a desire for political stability and economic development. It should be noted that, in both countries, popular demand for democratization peaked in the wake of devastating economic crises that were associated with widespread corruption and mismanagement. As the economy stabilised, the momentum for reform in each country gradually declined. *
More than a few phrases stand out.

"...when { } express support for democratic reforms, they are really communicating a desire for political stability and economic development."

"...popular demand for democratization peaked in the wake of devastating economic crises that were associated with widespread corruption and mismanagement."

Sound like any country's people you have heard/read about?

"Political stability and economic development" does not sound like a terribly difficult goal. However, the democracy of Japan left to its own devices can no longer deliver it. There has to be an ability to instigate movement, to will development, to guarantee that tomorrow will not be like today. This was the fire that Koizumi Jun'ichirō brought back. It was not a destructive fire, despite what his opponents now say about it. It was a warming fire. You knew that come what may, the congealed carapace would crack; the icy, rusted joints would be thawed out and oiled.

That fire, the fire of liberality and openness, is being allowed to go out again. Movement and heat are antithetical to the pure political operator--who has to know that what he secured today will be unchanged when he comes back to it again in a year. Calculation and cowardice devour all; democracy becomes a numbers game.

The Observer posits that a change in the rules could jump start the eternal revolution again. I think something more is needed: namely, a plan, any plan, to get the country somewhere where it has never been before.

Right now Japan's democracy is just sitting down, frazzled and panting.

* Karabekir Akkoyunlu, Military Reform and Democratization: Turkish and Indonesian experiences at the turn of the millennium, Adelphi Paper 392, (London: Routledge, November 2007) p. 67-8.


Anonymous said...

A wonderful post. You're the Japanese Tocqueville. What a pity you don't write De la démocratie au Japon, there's a lot to write about that, actually.

Anonymous said...

"It seems that democracy is not just rule by the people but rule by the people with a progressive agenda."

Yep. Democracy is when the people agree with my views. When things don't happen like I think they should, it must not be real democracy, because the people surely understand I'm right.

We heard that from the Democratic Party in the US for six years (until they finally won an election). And now we have to hear it in Japan?