Makeshift electoral reform

A bill to reapportion Upper House seats is likely to be enacted soon because the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the leading opposition Liberal Democratic Party have agreed to support it.

In the latest Upper House election held in the summer of 2010, there was a maximum 5-to-1 disparity in the value of each vote between depopulated areas and populated urban areas.

Courts in various parts of Japan ruled that because of the disparity, the election was unconstitutional or was held in an unconstitutional state. The bill will reduce the maximum disparity to 4.75 to 1. But this is an ad hoc, minimum measure to avoid constitutional problems in the next Upper House election to be held in the summer of 2013.

The Diet needs to embark on drastic reform that will greatly reduce the maximum disparity in vote value.

Under the latest bill, the number of seats for Kanagawa and Osaka prefectures will be increased by two each so that each of them will have eight seats while the number of seats for Fukushima and Gifu prefectures will be decreased by two each so that each of them will have two seats. The new scheme will be used from the next Upper House election.

Since half of the Upper House members are re-elected every three years, four members will be re-elected each in Kanagawa and Osaka prefectures and one each in Fukushima and Gifu prefectures.

If compared with a proposal made by the late former Upper House President Takeo Nishioka, it is clear that reapportionment under the bill is not bold enough.

After revising his first proposal, Nishioka proposed dividing Japan into nine electoral blocs and reducing the number of Upper House seats from the current 242 to 200. Under that proposal, the maximum disparity in vote value would have been dramatically reduced to 1.13 to 1. But political parties could not reach agreement because they have different agendas.

Nishioka’s death in November 2011 further delayed progress in reapportionment. Final results of the 2010 national census show that the maximum disparity has expanded to 5.12 to 1. It is clear that measures included in the bill the DPJ and the LDP are now expected to pass will soon become insufficient.

As for the Lower House, the Supreme Court in March 2011 ruled that the August 2009 Lower House election was held in an unconstitutional state due to the disparity in vote value. The Diet must immediately pass a bill for reapportioning Lower House seats.

In the long run, it should work out a drastic reform of both the Lower and Upper house election system. In doing so, efforts must be made to have the difference in the character of the two houses reflected in the election systems.

Any step that suppresses representation of minority opinions must be avoided.