“Nowadays the members of Parliament, with the exception of the few cabinet members (and a few insurgents), are normally nothing better than well-disciplined ‘yes’ men,” lamented Max Weber in “Politics as a Vocation.”
“With us, in the Reichstag, one used at least to take care of one’s correspondence on his desk, thus indicating that one was active in the weal of the country. Such gestures are not demanded in England; the member of Parliament must only vote, not commit party treason. He must appear when the whips call him, and do what the cabinet or the leader of the opposition orders.”
Essential to the Westminster system — parliamentary cabinet government — is an apparatus linking the cabinet to the ruling party that ensures the cabinet has the votes to smooth the passage of its legislation through the parliament, hence the link between the emergence of cabinet government and the growth of strong, top-down parties in Britain. Even in Britain, this system is not foolproof, as “backbench rebellions” have not been uncommon.
I call attention to this feature of the Westminster system because, of course, the DPJ is keen on growing a similar system on Japanese soil. And few DPJ members are as adamant about reforming how the cabinet and ruling party operate as Ozawa Ichiro, the DPJ’s secretary general. Six months into DPJ rule, however, some DPJ members are pushing back against the new system being put into place by Ozawa, having little interest in being “well-disciplined ‘yes’ men.”
The latest example is the party’s dismissal of Ubukata Yukio as one of the DPJ’s deputy secretaries general after criticizing the party executive for its centralization program and its stifling of debate within the party. As Michael Cucek observes, having been removed from office, Ubukata is going all-out in his campaign against the “Westminsterization” of the DPJ.
Ubukata’s insurgency is connected to the push to revive the party’s policymaking apparatus, which closed shop when the Hatoyama government took power last September. Ubukata is one of nearly fifty members of a study group that has formed to advocate for a new policymaking body. The intent, it seems, is to create a forum for receiving briefings from the government on current legislation and brainstorm new policies. Coupled with restrictions on the access of backbenchers to bureaucrats, a new policy outfit could be a useful safety valve for the government without unduly undermining the cabinet’s ability to formulate policy.
But even with a new policy council within the DPJ, the problems associated with the transition to a Westminster system remain. In truth, Hatoyama, Ozawa, and the other senior leaders of the DPJ face a challenge similar to that faced by William Gladstone and other British politicians who built the Westminster system in the first place.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, patronage was rampant, as parliamentarians distributed jobs and favors with little regard for party leaders and the cabinet. The result was ineffective government, which, Gladstone and other reformers insisted, was increasingly unsuited the problems facing Britain. Bernard Silberman describes Gladstone in terms that would not be inappropriate for describing Ozawa: “Gladstone was in many respects an étatist who viewed Parliament, but especially the Cabinet, as the necessary source of legislation which would enhance utilitarian and commonsensical economic and social development.” According to Silberman, the solution was building a rational, centralized civil service, with admittance based on merit rather than political connections. “Deprived of patronage,” he writes, “parliamentary parties were now forced to turn to constructing party organization in order to finally subjugate the backbencher to party discipline.”
The DPJ-led government is trying to perform a similar feat, transform the civil service by breaking its ties with the ruling party, and by doing so, centralize the cabinet and ruling party leadership’s control of policy (and pork-barrel spending). From the perspective of a backbencher, it is not an especially favorable arrangement. Little wonder that many DPJ members — particularly more senior backbenchers accustomed to the permissiveness of LDP rule — are chafing against the new system. Controlling backbenchers is hard enough in Britain, with its well-established institutions; controlling backbenchers as those very mechanisms are put into place is considerably more difficult.
To a certain extent, the problem is Ozawa. While Ozawa is probably the most enthusiastic advocate of a Westminster system in the DPJ, he may also be the least well suited DPJ member when it comes to inducing backbenchers to accept their fetters. Intimidating first-term Diet members is one thing. Bullying more senior Diet members, including at least one with ministerial experience (Tanaka Makiko), is quite another. Being an effective whip — which Ozawa effectively is — takes more than bullying, especially in the case of more senior members, presumably those most prone to rebellion. It also requires persuasion and timely dispensation of favors and perks. It takes, in other words, subtlety and guile, traits which do not seem to be among Ozawa’s strong suits. (For more on the role played by whips and other actors in the Westminster system, I cannot recommend Donald Searing’s Westminster’s World strongly enough.)
At same time, however, the problem is also structural. After decades of permissive LDP rule, Westminster-style control does look “dictatorial,” in the words used by LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu and others to describe the DPJ under Ozawa. (In which case might we describe LDP rule during the glory days of the 1955 system as “anarchic?) I wonder whether the problem is that actors in the Japanese political system — including voters and the media — are simply not able to wrap their heads around the new system being introduced by the DPJ leadership. Not being clear on the goal of a Westminster system — more effective executive power — the system just looks like heavy-handed suppression of speech, not helped by Ozawa’s being the one doing the suppressing. Indeed, to a certain extent the DPJ faces a dilemma. In order for Westminster-style politics to take hold among both backbenchers and the public, it needs to deliver policy results. But to deliver results, among other things the party needs to be able to control its members.
Naturally introducing a Westminster system means trading the LDP system’s representativeness for the Westminster model’s executive effectiveness. There is no perfect system. But the outcome of the current dispute — which may widen to include cabinet ministers — could determine whether the “statists” like Ozawa are able to succeed in building a more top-down policymaking structure or whether they are forced to make concessions to backbenchers that preserve an important role for them in policymaking and the management of party affairs.
There is a point here about institution building. It is not enough for leaders to draft new institutions on paper and then put them into motion. To be durable, institutions require broader legitimacy. To date, the DPJ’s leaders have been mostly concerned about putting new institutions into place. The backbencher insurgency suggests, however, that it may be time to focus on cementing the legitimacy of new institutions.