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Should the Public Elect the Prime Minister?

Hitora Tadashi [Profile]


Part of Hashimoto Tōru’s Reform Agenda

The current Constitution of Japan was drawn up shortly after World War II. Over the years there has been much discussion of proposed amendments, though none have been adopted. One issue that is currently the object of increasing attention in this connection is the idea of electing the prime minister by popular vote. Until recently politicians have generally been cooler to this idea than the general public. But it is one of the major policy points being advanced by the Osaka Restoration Association, a new local political party founded and led by Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Tōru. And support for the proposed change is spreading among members of the National Diet and some of the established political parties.

In the parliamentary cabinet system under the current Constitution, the prime minister is designated by votes in both houses of the Diet; if the two disagree, the vote of the lower house takes precedence. The cabinet headed by the prime minister wields executive power. The House of Representatives (lower house) can pass a resolution of no confidence in the prime minister, but the prime minister can counter this by dissolving the lower house and calling a general election (and can also do so at his discretion without such a resolution).

Under the Constitution, the chief executives of local governments are elected directly by popular vote. This means that national and regional political systems differ when it comes to choosing heads of the executive branch of government.

Since 2006, Japan has had a change of prime ministers every year. Divided government, with the two houses of the Diet controlled by different parties, and the frequent contests for the presidency of the ruling party (the ticket for becoming prime minister) are having a destabilizing effect on Japanese politics.

Against this background, greater attention is being paid to the argument that electing the prime minister by popular vote will enable stronger leadership. Hashimoto and his Osaka Restoration Association currently have no political power at the national level but are waiting for their chance at the next general election for the lower house (which must be held no later than August 2013 and may come sooner). Hashimoto says, “The public should take back the right to choose their leader from the Diet.” This is one of the planks of his reform platform, which also includes calls for a unicameral legislature and consolidation of the existing 47 prefectures into larger, more autonomous regional units. Within the Diet, meanwhile, a study group consisting of about 20 lawmakers from the ruling party and three opposition parties has resumed activities aimed at realizing this change.

Your Party, a small opposition party, has submitted a proposal for a form of direct elections that would not require a constitutional amendment: Parties and other political groups would nominate their candidates for the premiership, and voters would choose among them in a national referendum held to coincide with each general election for the lower house. Diet members would not be bound by the results of the referendum, but they would be expected to respect the people’s wishes, and for practical purposes it would be a popular vote for the prime minister.

Surfacing in Times of Political Instability

The argument for direct election of the prime minister may have come to prominence again recently, but it is not new. It is known as one of the cherished views of Nakasone Yasuhiro (prime minister 1982–87), who proposed this change in the 1960s.

The argument tends to gather more prominence at times of political instability. And it came to the surface in 2000 when Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō died suddenly in office and Mori Yoshirō was quickly selected as his successor through backroom dealings within the Liberal Democratic Party, a process that came under sharp criticism.

Of particular note was the report submitted by an advisory panel to Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō (2001–6) in 2002. Like the study group mentioned above, this panel was formed to consider a system of selecting the prime minister by popular vote. The panel suggested three possible approaches: (a) a presidential-style system, (b) a popular vote for the prime minister at the time of lower house elections, and (c) reform to strengthen the functioning of the cabinet within the framework of the existing Constitution. The first two would require constitutional amendments.

In the first case, with a presidential-style election, the public would directly elect a prime minister and deputy prime minister. The voting would be conducted at the same time as each lower house general election. In order to run, pairs of candidates would require the endorsement of a set number of Diet members. If no pair won a majority of the votes, a runoff election would be held.

Unlike the president of the United States, a publicly elected prime minister in Japan would have the right to submit bills directly to the legislature. The prime minister’s term would be four years, but a resolution of no confidence could be passed by a two-thirds majority in the lower house. In such a case, the lower house would be dissolved, and an election would be called to choose a new prime minister and deputy and a new set of lower house members.

In the second case, each political party would declare its candidate for prime minister at the time of a general election. When people voted for a political party, they would effectively be voting for a prime minister too. The Constitution would need to be amended with the addition of provisions concerning political parties so as to promote a selection process with public participation. But the actual selection of the prime minister would be conducted under the parliamentary cabinet system. A motion of no confidence in the prime minister could include the designation of a successor, as is the practice in Germany, for example.

After this report was submitted, however, the calls for direct election of the prime minister died down for a while. In the case of a presidential-style election system, it was pointed out that the prime minister’s party might end up in the minority in the Diet, resulting in a divided government. People have also come to consider the relationship between such a system and the position of the emperor. For example, the Democratic Party of Japan’s Ozawa Ichirō declared that the idea of a directly elected prime minister was bound to raise the issue of compatibility with the imperial institution, since a person directly elected by the nation as its leader would be the head of state.

Two Currents in the Constitutional Debate

There is a deep-rooted fear among Diet members that the kind of populist politics epitomized by Prime Minister Koizumi will gather pace if there are direct prime ministerial elections. Israel decided to have a separate ballot for the prime minister in 1992, but in 2001 it did away with separate elections and reverted to the previous system. This influenced the debate in Japan, and the majority opinion in a 2005 report from the House of Representatives Research Commission of the Constitution was opposed to direct elections.

At the same time, however, it is a fact that direct election of the prime minister has a degree of support among the public. In polls conducted by the Mainichi Newspapers in both 2005 and 2009, among those who thought the Constitution should be amended, the change supported by the largest number of respondents was, “The prime minister should be directly chosen by the public.” Awareness of this public opinion has been an undercurrent in the current debate.

Given the sense of stagnation currently pervading politics, the idea that the public directly choose the country’s leader may seem attractive. Should Japan seek to improve the functioning of its political system within the framework of the parliamentary cabinet system, or would it be better to reform the system by adopting presidential-style elections? We should note that these are the two currents that have formed in the constitutional debate over Japan’s governing institutions.

(Originally written in Japanese on May 31, 2012.)

  • [2012.06.25]

Editorial board member of the Mainichi Shimbun. Born in Sapporo, Hokkaidō. Joined the staff of the Mainichi Shimbun in 1985. Began reporting on politics in 1989. Held various positions at the newspaper, including lead reporter at the Kantei (the prime minister's office) and political editor, prior to assuming his current post.

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