Staff writer A battle over a controversial bill to abolish 20 proportional-representation seats in the Lower House is rocking the Diet, with the opposition parties threatening to boycott all deliberations if the bill is forced through. Deadlock could even force Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to dissolve the Lower House.But what, exactly, is all this political fuss about? How in the world did it start? And is the seat reduction really necessary? Reducing the number of seats in the Lower House was originally proposed by Liberal Party chief Ichiro Ozawa in November 1998 in policy talks with Obuchi during the launch of the coalition government of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democratic Party. Behind Ozawa’s argument was the ongoing drastic reduction in personnel — both at the local assembly and central government level — and the support of voters, who are widely seen as being fed up with what they see as an overly powerful bureaucracy and good-for-nothing politicians, observers said. Local assemblies throughout the country continued to reduce seats through the 1980s and 1990s as voices calling for streamlining the inefficient, financially troubled administrations became louder and louder. The Local Autonomy Law sets the maximum number of local assembly members permitted for a number of people, and currently these assemblies nationwide are permitted to have a total of 85,759 seats to represent Japan’s 100.16 million eligible voters. However, 97.2 percent of the 3,302 prefectural and municipal assemblies have voluntarily enacted local ordinances to reduce seats. As of October 1998, the total number of seats at local assemblies stood at 63,562, some 25.9 percent below the legally permitted number. The national government is also set to drastically reduce its workforce by 25 percent over 10 years, as agreed by Obuchi and Ozawa during policy discussions in late 1998. The ruling camp argues the Diet itself should set an example in carrying out aggressive streamlining efforts. “The central government and private sector companies are all restructuring amid the recession. Should only the Diet remain unchanged?” asked Ozawa last December when he threatened to leave the coalition over the issue. Voters in general seem to welcome any cost-cutting efforts by the administration, the Diet, local government and assemblies, which is one reason the ruling camp appears ready to override the opposition’s resistance. But the logic behind such streamlining decisions is often unclear, and some say that abolishing seats simply panders to voters. In Koshi, a small town with a population of 22,000 in Kumamoto Prefecture, two assembly seats have been cashed in for coupons handed to voters. The municipal assembly cut two of the 18 seats in March 1998, which enabled the local government to save 8.5 million yen per year. The money was eventually used to distribute free gift coupons to 1,500 elderly local residents. “We don’t accept the argument that any seat reduction is good. A Diet member is a pipe to link people and the Diet,” said Kazuo Shii, chief secretariat of the Japanese Communist Party. “It’s absurd to say the narrower the pipe becomes the better it is.” According to secretariats of the chamber, 76 million yen in taxpayers’ money is annually spent to cover the salaries and expenses of each member of the Lower House. Abolishing 20 seats, if carried out, would save 1.52 billion yen a year. Whether the money would be worth the loss of 20 lawmakers, who are supposed to represent constituents, is up to the judgment of the voters themselves.

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