National / Politics

Upper House electoral districts set for historic postwar shake-up to end election 'unconstitutionality'

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

The Upper House passed a bill Friday to rectify sharp gaps in the weight of votes among constituencies, paving the way for the first merger of Upper House electoral districts since the war.

The changes will apply from next summer’s House of Councilors election.

The bill, jointly submitted by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and four opposition parties, is expected to be enacted into law at the Lower House as early as next Tuesday.

The electoral reform would merge sparsely populated prefectures — Tottori, Shimane, Kochi and Tokushima — into two single districts. The reform would also cut two seats each from Miyagi, Niigata and Nagano, and add two seats each to Tokyo, Hokkaido, Aichi, Hyogo and Fukuoka.

The Upper House currently has 242 seats. Of those, 146 are directly elected by voters in 47 prefectural districts. The remaining 96 are elected under the nationwide party-list proportional representation system.

With the changes, the maximum vote-value disparities between constituencies with the most and the fewest voters would narrow to 2.97 to 1, down from 4.77 to 1 in the Upper House election in 2013, which the Supreme Court in November last year ruled as having taken place “in a state of unconstitutionality.” The court called for fundamental reform of the electoral system.

The bill also stipulates the need for further reform before the 2019 Upper House elections.

But as the vote-value gap would remain around three-fold even after the initial reform, the LDP’s junior coalition partner Komeito and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan voted against the bill, saying the vote-value gap should be trimmed to a ratio of less than 2 to 1.

Komeito and the DPJ jointly submitted a separate bill earlier this month that would narrow the disparity to 1.95 to 1.

Komeito, a coalition partner of the LDP’s since 1999, rarely adopts a position that contradicts its bigger partner. The bill was deliberated but was not put to a vote, as the LDP’s bill was passed by the upper chamber.

Following the passage of the LDP’s bill, DPJ President Katsuya Okada questioned the legitimacy of the 2.97 to 1 vote-value disparity.

“It’s extremely regrettable,” Okada said at a news conference. “I wonder if the Supreme Court would judge this as constitutional. I believe this reform plan could be ruled as unconstitutional or in the state of unconstitutionality.”

The LDP has strongly opposed redrawing the Upper House constituencies across prefectural borders in less populated areas, which have long been one of the party’s strongholds.

The party initially proposed a plan that would have avoided merging constituencies. However, as the plan would only narrow the maximum vote-value disparity to 4.31 to 1, it failed to gain support from other parties.

Despite strong opposition from its members, especially those in the districts that will be merged, the LDP endorsed the bill proposed by four opposition parties on Wednesday.

The six LDP members for the districts affected walked out in protest before the vote.