Talks between the ruling and opposition parties on reform of the Lower House electoral system have made little headway. Lawmakers should feel a sense of urgency and give priority to quickly correcting the disparity in the value of votes between constituencies of different populations, before the next general election. To date, vote-value disparity remains so wide as to undermine the principle of equality under the Constitution.
The Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling alliance and the opposition parties — with the exception of the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party — agree on the need to reduce the number of Lower House members under the current electoral system combining single-seat districts with proportional representation. But they remain far apart on how to accomplish this task.
The issue is complicated by the parties’ discussing of two subjects at the same time. The LDP calls for reducing 180 proportional representation seats by 30 and introducing a special quota that benefits smaller parties — for the sake of New Komeito.
The DPJ and other parties say that seats allocated to between 18 and 30 less populous electoral districts should be cut while adding seats to between three and five populous constituencies, thus narrowing the vote-value disparity for elections.
The LDP is willing to cut the overall number of Lower House seats — primarily as a political gesture to show that lawmakers are cutting back on the number of their own seats in the Diet to reduce government expenses at a time when the consumption tax hike will place a heavier burden on voters. But the LDP is hesitant to make further cuts of seats allocated to electoral districts after five seats were cut last year. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued last week that the problem of vote-value disparity, deemed unconstitutional by the courts, has been resolved for now.
In November, the Supreme Court ruled that the December 2012 Lower House election, in which the gap in the value of one vote between constituencies had reached a maximum of 2.43 to 1, was “in a state of unconstitutionality.” But it stopped short of invalidating the election itself as some earlier high court rulings had done. A measure to cut one seat each from five constituencies — approved by the Diet just before the 2012 election but not applied to the poll because reapportionment was not carried out until additional changes were made to the law — cut the maximum vote-value disparity to 1.998 to 1, just below the benchmark 2 to 1.
The five-seat reduction is only a stopgap measure since, as the top court pointed out, it is almost certain that vote-value disparity will again exceed 2 to 1 by the time of the next Lower House election, since the population continues to shift from rural to urban areas. Given the time needed for legal changes and for public notification before the next election — which must be held by the end of 2016 — the parties should make rectification of the vote-value disparity a priority.
The gap in vote values is also a problem in the Upper House, half of whose members will face election in 2016. Since it is considered likely that elections for both Diet chambers will be held simultaneously in the summer of 2016, it is urgent that the parties narrow the gap before voters go to the polls.