There’s a rumble in Nagoya as the mayor is clashing with the assembly over a reduction in local taxes, and commentators are mulling over the possibilities of what could happen next. Will the assembly pass a no-confidence resolution against the mayor? Could a citizen petition demand the dissolution of the city assembly? Or will the assembly dissolve itself?
In Kasumigaseki, the central government is a classic example of a parliamentary system. The people elect their representatives to the Diet, which in turn selects the prime minister. A chief characteristic of this form of government is that the parliament and prime minister have their hands around each others throats: the parliament can pass a motion of no-confidence in the Prime Minister with a mere simple majority vote and force resignation or an election at any time, just as the prime minister has the power to dissolve the parliament at will (but which is not as straightforward as you might think).
Local governments are structured differently. Under the Local Autonomy Law (地方自治法) passed in 1947, Japan’s local governments follow a more republican form of governance that incorporates direct democracy. The voters elect not just the members of their municipal and prefectural assemblies, but also the mayor of the municipality in which they live, and the governor of the prefecture. In addition, the people have the right to petition to dissolve the assembly or force a vote to have the mayor or governor resign. The relationship between the governor or mayor — let’s call this person the “Executive” — and the assembly is more distant than relationship between the Prime Minister and the Diet. For a no confidence resolution to pass in a local assembly, 2/3rds of all assembly members must be in attendance, and 3/4ths of all attending members must vote for the measure. Once the chairman of the assembly delivers the resolution to the executive, he has ten days to either dissolve the assembly or resign. This is the only case when an executive can dissolve a local assembly.
The Local Autonomy Law, passed during the American occupation, did not grant the assembly the right to dissolve itself, because that’s not in the arsenal of an elected assembly in a republican government. But it wasn’t long before the Diet came under intense popular pressure to recognize the right of a local assembly to dissolve itself and call an election. So eighteen years after the passage of the Local Autonomy Law, the Diet passed in 1965 the “Special Measures Law concerning Dissolving the Assembly of Local Governments” (地方公共団体の議会の解散に関する特例法). The law is noticeable for its brevity at a mere two articles long, and yet the first article states the law’s purpose in a long-winded statement which shows, I think, how reluctant the scholars of political theory in Kasumigaseki were to meddle with the direct democracy of local governments:
Article 1. This law sets out special measures to the Local Autonomy Law regarding dissolving the assembly of local governments, following the trend of public opinion concerning petitions on dissolving the assembly of local governments, so that such assemblies can dissolve themselves and hold elections to listen to the opinion of local residents.
The second and final article goes on to set incredibly high standards for dissolution: 3/4ths of all assembly members must be in attendance, and 4/5ths of all attending members must vote for the dissolution. I do not know of any other elected assembly in the world that has such a steep threshold for passing a resolution. Consequently, you might think that this is an obscure procedure that exists under law, but which is never practically used.
Not so — a mere month after the law passed, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly dissolved itself after public and opposition pressure following an LDP bribery scandal (refereneced previously by Adamu in this post on Tokyo’s local elections). And the next year the Ibaraki Prefectural Assembly dissolved itself. Prefectural assembly dissolutions have been just about unheard of since, but dozens of municipal governments have dissolved as well, usually following the revelation of fraud or gross illegality during an election.