Get more serious on electoral reform

It’s not clear whether political priority is being given to correcting the sharp disparity in the value of votes between populous and less populous constituencies. A plan put forth by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party on reform of the Lower House electoral system calls for cutting the chamber’s seats by 10 from the current 475 but shelves a major overhaul of the way the seats are distributed across prefectures as proposed by an experts’ panel commissioned by the Lower House speaker. Abe has said he would seek to get relevant bills through the Diet during the current session, but delaying the more fundamental reform on an excuse of difficulty in building a consensus among the party’s lawmakers defeats the very purpose of electoral reform.

The LDP was initially reluctant to support cuts to Lower House seats. An earlier LDP draft said the cuts should wait until the next full-scale national census in 2020 is released, and advocated narrowing the vote-value gap by redrawing the demarcation of some single-seat constituencies. In the face of criticism that the LDP plan would postpone the seat cuts to the early 2020s at the soonest, Abe told the Diet last week that both the Lower House seat reallocation and cuts should be carried out on the basis of the summary census held in 2015, whose preliminary outcome is due out soon.

As Lower House Speaker Tadamori Oshima held a round of hearings with party leaders on the issue Monday, the LDP said the party would seek to cut Lower House seats by 10 — six out of the 295 elected in single-seat constituencies and four of the 180 chosen in proportional representation blocs. Since the six seats would be cut from prefectures with the least population per Lower House seat, that would contribute to narrowing the disparity in the value of votes — likely within a gap of 2 to 1.

In its rulings on the last three general elections of the Lower House in 2009, 2012 and 2014, the Supreme Court said the maximum gap in the value of votes between constituencies — which topped 2 to 1, meaning that a vote cast in the least populous electoral district carried more than double the weight of a vote cast in the most populous constituency — was “in a state of unconstitutionality” although it didn’t invalidate the election results. It is a problem that distorts the representation of popular will in the Diet, and will only get worse without a fundamental overhaul of the electoral system as the population flight from rural to urban areas of the country continues.

But talks among political parties for electoral reform went nowhere as partisan interests took the center stage. So the panel of experts was commissioned by the Lower House speaker to come up with a solution. Earlier this year, the panel recommended that the Lower House introduce a new method of distributing its seats across the 47 prefectures that would more accurately reflect the population breakdown than the current system — singled out by the top court as the problem at the root of the vote-value disparity — of allocating one seat to each prefecture before distributing the remaining seats in proportion to the prefectures’ populations.

Abe has said he would “respect” the panel’s recommendations, but the LDP’s plan falls short of an overhaul of the electoral system as called for by the panel. If the outcome of the 2010 national census is applied, the panel’s proposal, which also calls for a reduction of 10 seats from the Lower House, would cut one seat each from 13 less populous prefectures while giving seven seats to Tokyo and three other populous prefectures. Under the formula, the maximum gap in the value of votes between prefectures would be cut from the current 1.788 to 1 to 1.621 to 1.

Electoral reforms will not move forward if partisan interests are prioritized. Resistance to the experts panel’s recommendations are strong within the LDP because the party, after its landslide wins in the 2012 and 2014 elections, has many incumbents in prefectures that will be subject to the seat cuts — which are also traditionally the party’s strongholds. The LDP reportedly gave up on following the panel’s proposal because it would take too much time to build a consensus within the party by trying to adjust the interests of the lawmakers that would be affected. Of the 11 parties that gave their opinions to Oshima on the issue, nine except for the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party agreed on the need for seat cuts, but the LDP stood out among the nine parties in rejecting the panel’s call for an overhaul of the distribution of seats across prefectures.

After they decided to carry out a two-phase hike in the consumption tax beginning in 2014, key political parties including the LDP agreed on the need to reduce the number of Lower House seats — and have since pledged to implement the cuts in their election campaigns. Their logic was that politicians should accept some pain themselves now that they’re asking voters to bear the burden of the increased consumption tax. But Diet seats are a representation of the popular will, not lawmakers’ vested interests.

It’s unclear whether slashing the number of Diet seats will serve voters’ interests except to cut government expenses on lawmaker salaries. Electoral reform should focus instead on a fundamental solution to the disparity in the value of votes — an issue that the LDP’s plan apparently fails to address.