Japan’s political parties have failed to increase their female ranks despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s campaign for female empowerment, and some experts say a legislated gender quota for elections is the key to putting the nation on a par with its peers.

The Dec. 14 House of Representatives election is being characterized by several lows — lows in potential turnout, number of candidates and excitement — with Abe and his conservative Liberal Democratic Party set to claim a four-year mandate.

But another low emerging in the upcoming poll is the proportion of women being fielded.

Despite much pontificating this year about the need to get more women into leadership positions, just 16.6 percent of candidates in the campaign, which officially kicked off Tuesday, are women, according to a Kyodo News tally.

Before Abe dissolved the Lower House on Nov. 21 for the snap poll, just 39, or 8.1 percent, of the powerful chamber’s 480 lawmakers were women, placing Japan 134th out of 189 countries in the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ranking of women in parliaments worldwide as of Oct. 1.

In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014, Japan ranked 104th of 142 countries, and 129th for women’s political empowerment. Although Tokyo rose a notch in the overall ranking compared with a year earlier, it remained in the lowest level among developed countries.

As part of a “womenomics” policy to seek economic growth by promoting their social advancement, Abe has pledged to have women occupying around 30 percent of the nation’s management jobs by 2020.

The LDP repeats this in its manifesto for the upcoming election.

While the ruling party may be hamstrung by its inability to replace men in single-seat constituencies, women still only account for 11.9 percent of its candidates overall, even with the proportional representation section included.

The Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition force, has a higher female candidate ratio of 14.6 percent. In October, DPJ President Banri Kaieda was backing the idea of setting a 30 percent quota for female candidates, but when the snap election was announced, the surprised party ended up abandoning the idea.

The Japanese Communist Party tops all parties with a female candidate ratio of 25.1 percent.

The closest any party has come to adopting a quota system was when the now-defunct Your Party decided before splitting up last month that women would make up at least a third of its candidates in the next general election.

Mari Miura, a political science professor at Sophia University and an expert on quotas, says that without decisive legislative reform, the issue of women’s underrepresentation will not be solved. Since voluntary quotas are so difficult to get off the ground, a system governed by law and applying to all parties is the ideal solution for Japan, she said.

“It is now the right time to devise a useful quota system, with Japan ripe for electoral reform in general, reflecting issues such as the vote weight disparity” between rural and urban areas, she said.

On Dec. 14, the national disparity in vote weights will be as high as 2.14, leaving the constitutionality of the election on shaky legal ground once again, the latest tally of registered voters indicates. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled the 2012 Lower House election to be “in a state of unconstitutionality” as the disparity was as high as 2.43.

“We will watch carefully for further developments on the Supreme Court ruling, and whenever election reform occurs it’s essential that a gender quota system be on the table,” Miura said.

Around the world, some countries have voluntary party quotas and others have quotas mandated by law. The success of each varies.

In Sweden, several political parties have introduced quotas, raising the proportion of female lawmakers to 43.6 percent.

In South Korea, electoral law requires women make up 50 percent of parties’ proportional representation lists, but its legislature doesn’t have many seats of this type, anyway, Miura said. Women thus make up 15.7 percent of the National Assembly, according to the IPU.

The IPU said in a 2013 report that to be meaningful, legislated quotas should be “ambitious,” with women placed in “winnable positions on party lists.”

Having more women in the Diet would contribute directly to better-formulated “womenomics” policies and serve as a symbol of successful reform that could spur the private sector, she said. It could also set the scene for other underrepresented groups, such as the disabled, to play a more active role.

“Many minority groups remain left out of the decision-making in Japan, but evening the playing field for women in parliament can serve as a useful example of how to represent these other groups more fairly,” she said.

Time is of the essence if Abe’s 30 percent target is to successfully include lawmakers, Miura said.

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