Nejire kokkai ねじれ国会
In Japanese there is an expression called nejire kokkai, ねじれ国会, which roughly can be translated as ”a twisted Parliament”. It refers to the situation when different political camps have majority positions in the two Houses, the House of Representatives (衆議院480 seats) and the House of Councillors (参議院242 seats). At the moment Japan has a nejire kokkai with the government coalition only having a majority in the House of Representatives. This resembles the situation in the US Congress and, of course, makes decision making more difficult. Even so, there are some interesting reflections one can do when comparing the Parliaments of Sweden and Japan.
Sweden changed to a one-chamber system in 1971 and most of the time since then we have had minority governments. Today we elect the 349 members of Parliament every four years, always on the third Sunday of September. Our Parliament can be dissolved, if the political constellations lead to unmanageable situations, and new elections can be arranged, but regular elections will be held anyway, every four years. This means that it is less and less attractive to dissolve Parliament the closer you get to the date for the stipulated elections, which in turn contributes to relative stability in Parliament.
Of course, in a parliamentary system a government always prefers a majority situation, but Swedish modern history has shown that a minority situation in Parliament does not necessarily lead to instability. After all, politics is also the art of compromising and you can often find solutions through discussions, with whom depends on the issues. Opposition for the sake of opposition is usually not very constructive and creates unnecessary instability. Debates in the Swedish Parliament can also be heated, but there is no heckling or shouting during the plenary meetings. Applauds are allowed, but if someone starts to boo or raise her or his voice, the Speaker immediately intervenes. Some say it is boring, but I find it refreshing to have MPs concentrate on their arguments rather than heckle each other.
In Japan proceedings in the Budget Committee are always televised live and I have noticed that almost everywhere you go people are following the debates, at least with one ear. The reason why the Budget Committee is given so much importance seems to be that it is considered to be responsible for everything, in one way or another, and therefore has the right to question the government on anything. One of the most important roles of a parliament is after all to scrutinize the government and it is interesting to note that the Cabinet members in Japan spend a lot of time answering questions from the members of the Budget Committee. On the other hand, there must also be an element of frustration that they cannot spend more time elsewhere. As far as I can remember, there has always been a debate in Japan about the relationship between the elected politicians and the bureaucrats. Many books and articles discussing the strength of the Japanese bureaucracy have been published and almost everyday you hear parliamentarians discuss ways to increase their own influence over the decision making process.
By the way, in English the Japanese Parliament is still often referred to as the “Japanese Diet”. It is rather confusing, since the Japanese expression kokkai 国会 is best translated as ”Parliament”. The word diet derives from Latin and was a name for an assembly in medieval Germany. The earlier Meiji constitution was largely based on the form of constitutional monarchy found in nineteenth century Prussia. The present, modern constitution has very little to do with Prussia.