Passage of a controversial electoral reform bill Thursday has provided another example of the ruling coalition’s increasing use of force that opposition lawmakers describe as as tyrannous.
During a Lower House plenary session Thursday, the ruling triumvirate — the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — passed their proposed revisions to the electoral system into law, putting an end to Diet deliberations on the issue.
A bill submitted as a counterproposal by the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, was not even discussed.
The revised Public Offices Election Law allows voters to pick either a party or one of its candidates in the proportional representation segment of Upper House elections. Under the system just abandoned, citizens could cast their votes only for a party.
Masaki Taniguchi, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tokyo, said the revised legislation goes against the guiding principle of a series of electoral reforms.
A 1982 revision, for instance, abandoned the national constituency system in Upper House elections — which focused on individuals — to create a party-centered system, Taniguchi said.
“The ruling bloc is attempting to scrap that principle merely to pursue party interests,” he said.
But this is not the legislation’s only fault, according to political observers and opposition members.
Other critics point to the possibility that the revised system may end up as a popularity vote, prompting parties to field high-profile candidates to garner votes.
Yoshiaki Kobayashi, a professor of political science at Keio University, however, dismissed such concerns.
He pointed to the recent victories of two well-known candidates — award-winning novelist Yasuo Tanaka in Nagano’s gubernatorial election and Etsuko Kawada, a longtime supporter of people infected with HIV through contaminated blood products, in a Tokyo by-election — to demonstrate what he sees as voter sophistication.
Voters, Kobayashi said, are smart enough not to elect a big-name candidate without political experience.
He insisted that Tanaka and Kawada secured victories not because they are famous but because they “gave the impression that they can change politics.”
However, Kanju Sato, a Lower House member of the DPJ, noted that the biggest problem with the new system is that votes garnered by one candidate — a high-profile one for example — can be effectively transferred to other party members who won fewer votes.
If a candidate, who needs 700,000 votes to win a seat, gains 3 million votes, 2,300,000 votes will be transferred to other candidates, allowing three more candidates in the same party to win seats, Sato told a recent electoral committee.
The bill proposed by the DPJ would have abandoned the proportional representation system, replacing it with a regional bloc system under which voters pick individual candidates.
The counterproposal partly reflected the ruling coalition’s argument that people would show greater interest in politics if they could vote for individual candidates.
DPJ officials stressed, however, that campaigning under its proposed system would be less costly.
Political observers and opposition lawmakers have been keen to point out that the new system may fall into the same trap of expensive campaigning and tough schedules that Japan suffered before the 1982 revision.
Under the national constituency system — before the revision — candidates had to campaign far and wide, said Columbia Top, a comedian and former Upper House member of the Niin Club. Columbia Top’s real name is Yutaka Shimomura.
“It was like a physical strength test,” said Shimomura, recalling his own experience under the system.
During the 23 days of the campaign period, he drove from one prefecture to another during the day and flew back to Tokyo in the evening to discuss strategies with his staff.
Still, he admits, things were easier for him because he was already famous. Unknown candidates, he noted, would have to launch a costly campaign just to become familiar to the public.
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