The unknown but limited power of the censure motion

During the fight over the MSDF refueling mission and at other junctures in the months since the DPJ took control of the HC, the DPJ has threatened to use its “censure motion” card. It has yet to play it, whether against Prime Minister Fukuda or one of his cabinet ministers.

It is still unknown what will happen if and when the DPJ passes a non-binding censure resolution. I stand by what I wrote in this post back in November.

“By its very nature as a non-binding resolution, its power derives entirely from outside factors. Would a non-binding censure resolution have any power against a prime minister with Koizumian popularity? Would it have power if used against the prime minister over a policy issue in which he enjoyed public backing?”

This is once again a pressing question now that the DPJ is threatening to censure the government if it re-approves the temporary gasoline tax at the end of April. If this scenario transpires, the censure motion will trigger a short, fierce battle for public opinion. The government will claim that it was acting in the public interest and is not obligated to do anything in response to the HC’s censure; the DPJ will try to claim that it has the public’s support and that the government is acting without a mandate from the people.

Mainichi has provided a first glimpse at how the public might respond to this scenario. In a national phone poll conducted on 5-6 April, 55% of respondents said that the government should dissolve the HR and call an election in response to a censure motion. 21% said that no action is necessary since it would be a non-binding resolution, and only 19% said that the cabinet should resign in response. Interestingly, the poll found that even 43% of self-described supporters of the Fukuda government approve of a general election in response to a censure motion, compared with 42% who feel that the government should do nothing.

It is worth noting that respondents did not see the need for the government to resign in response to a censure motion. In short, the government should stand and face the direct judgment of the people — which also means that the government would be given the opportunity to explain itself directly to the people in an election campaign. I suppose that’s a suitable compromise position regarding a censure motion.

That said, I’m still skeptical of the ability of the DPJ to pressure the government into calling an early election. The DPJ, of course, has plenty to gain from calling an election now, but by the same token the LDP has everything to lose. I am not convinced that the government will throw away its one means to avoid genuinely compromising with the DPJ over a censure motion. Barring a massive public outcry, which may be hard to come by in the midst of Golden Week, the government would most likely survive a censure motion, which raises the question of whether it’s worth it for the DPJ to bother passing one. Passing a censure motion that the government proceeds to ignore is a great way for the DPJ to illustrate its weakness.

But then, censure motion or no censure motion, the DPJ is weak. Even the threat of a censure motion is inadequate and easily dismissed. Faced with a government armed with an Article 59 supermajority, when the stakes are high and the government acts “forcefully” there’s little the DPJ can do but complain (with censure motions by the constitutionally approved form of complaining).

One thought on “The unknown but limited power of the censure motion

  1. Anonymous

    Doesnt a force majority in the lower house lead to a lack of legitimacy of the laws made? I would think this would be a good enough reason for an election.


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