Dissolving the House of Representatives: A Powerful Political ToolPolitics
On September 28, 2017, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō dissolved the lower house of the Diet and called a snap election slated for October 22. Below we look at the legal and historical background of the dissolution, a powerful political instrument that can reset the course of Japan’s most influential legislative body.
A Prime Ministerial Power
The Japanese National Diet is a bicameral legislature consisting of the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors, the lower and upper house, respectively. Members of the lower chamber of the Diet, the more influential of the two, serve four-year terms while their colleagues in the upper chamber have six-year terms.
The prime minister has the authority to dissolve the lower house at any time and call for a general election. This is one of the premier’s greatest political powers, and one that Japan’s leaders have historically used to their advantage, typically to put pivotal issues from their agenda to a vote or to bolster their party’s control of the legislative body.
Two Routes to Dissolution
The Japanese Constitution provides two ways for dissolving the lower house. The most commonly applied method is set out in Article 7. The passage gives the emperor, “with the advice and approval of the cabinet,” the authority to perform various matters of state, including disbanding the House of Representatives. The involvement of the emperor is only a formal device, though, and the decision to dissolve the legislative chamber rests firmly with the prime minister.
The second method is through Article 69. This calls for the House of Representatives to dissolve within 10 days of passing a no-confidence vote or rejecting a confidence measure against the cabinet. To date, this type of dissolution has only occurred four times in the postwar period. As with Article 7, dissolution under Article 69 is formally carried out by the emperor.
Following the disbandment of the lower chamber of the Diet, as per Article 54 of the Constitution, a general election must be held within 40 days.
Ending Early the Norm
Since the postwar Constitution came into force it has been standard practice for prime ministers to dissolve the House of Representatives. Over more than seven decades, the lower house has run its entire four-year term just one time.
A premier’s decision to dissolve the lower house generally hinges on a prominent political issue. It must take into consideration the political landscape and be carefully timed. In the case of Abe’s recent move to call a snap election, he is generally viewed as capitalizing on his improved approval ratings amid rising North Korean tensions and a disheveled opposition in order to advance core areas of his agenda. These include a hike of the consumption tax hike to 10% in October 2019 and proposed revisions to the Constitution.
Dissolving the lower house comes with risks, however. In November 2012, Noda Yoshihiko disbanded the lower house after bartering with the opposition to pass a social security and tax reform bill. However, he was forced to do so while popular support for his Democratic Party of Japan languished, leading to a major defeat for his party in the subsequent election and an end to his administration.
There is no official protocol for naming dissolutions, but usually at least one de facto title emerges from the press or from politicians themselves to serve as a shorthand description for the broader political setting. Examples include the “consumption tax” dissolution in January 1990, named for Kaifu Toshiki’s plan to introduce a 3% sales tax, and the August 2005 “postal dissolution,” so called for Koizumi Jun’ichirō’s proposed privatization of the nation’s postal services.
In most cases, though, labels are not cut and dried. For example, in January 1955 Hatoyama Ichirō unexpectedly dissolved the House of Representatives during a questions session in the Diet in what became known as the “voice of heaven” dissolution. More recently, in 2009 Asō Tarō called the “on-the-brink” dissolution in July 2009 as public sentiment of his Liberal Democratic Party languished, leading to their drubbing in the ensuing election. One infamous case is the March 1953 “you idiot” dissolution that Yoshida Shigeru called following a bout of name calling by the prime minister during a budget committee session.(Originally published in Japanese on November 18, 2014. Content edited and added by the Nippon.com English editorial team. Banner photo: The main chamber of the House of Representatives. © Jiji.)
Postwar Dissolutions of the House of Representatives
|Date of dissolution||Prime minister||Popular name|
|1||December 18, 1945||Shidehara Kijūrō||GHQ dissolution|
|2||March 31, 1947||Yoshida Shigeru||New Constitution dissolution; Second GHQ dissolution|
|3||December 23, 1948||Yoshida||Collusion dissolution|
|4||August 28, 1952||Yoshida||“Out of the blue” dissolution|
|5||March 14, 1953||Yoshida||“You idiot” dissolution|
|6||January 24, 1955||Hatoyama Ichirō||“Voice of heaven” dissolution|
|7||April 25, 1958||Kishi Nobusuke||“Talk things out” dissolution|
|8||October 24, 1960||Ikeda Hayato||Security Treaty dissolution|
|9||October 23, 1963||Ikeda||Income-doubling dissolution|
|10||December 27, 1966||Satō Eisaku||“Black mist” dissolution|
|11||December 2, 1969||Satō||Okinawa dissolution|
|12||November 13, 1972||Tanaka Kakuei||Sino-Japanese dissolution|
|13||December 9, 1976 (full term)||Miki Takeo||Lockheed incident dissolution|
|14||September 7, 1979||Ōhira Masayoshi||General consumption tax election|
|15||May 19, 1980||Ōhira||“Happening” dissolution|
|16||November 28, 1983||Nakasone Yasuhiro||Lockheed trial dissolution|
|17||June 2, 1986||Nakasone||Play-dead dissolution|
|18||January 24, 1990||Kaifu Toshiki||Consumption tax dissolution|
|19||June 18, 1993||Miyazawa Kiichi||Political reform dissolution|
|20||September 27, 1996||Hashimoto Ryūtarō||New electoral system dissolution|
|21||June 2, 2000||Mori Yoshirō||“Land of the gods” dissolution|
|22||October 10, 2003||Koizumi Jun’ichirō||“Manifesto” dissolution; administrative reform dissolution|
|23||August 8, 2005||Koizumi||Postal dissolution|
|24||July 21, 2009||Asō Tarō||On-the-brink dissolution|
|25||November 16, 2012||Noda Yoshihiko||“In the near future” dissolution|
|26||November 21, 2014||Abe Shinzō||Abenomics dissolution|
|27||September 28, 2017||Abe||Still to be decided|