National / Politics

Debate over LDP's plan to reform electoral system for Upper House heats up

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Brushing off opposition anger, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling bloc on Wednesday rammed through an Upper House panel a contentious bill that in all likelihood will make Japan’s arcane electoral system even more complicated.

At the heart of the controversy is a bill proposed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that will increase the number of Diet seats in the Upper House chamber — a move that flies in the face of a recent trend toward trimming them.

So what is the dispute over the bill and how would Japan’s electoral system change?

What does the bill do?

It will increase the number of Upper House seats to 248 from the current 242 as part of an attempt to redress what is known as the vote-value disparity, or a gap in the weight of a single vote between rural and urban constituencies. Of the six seats to be added, half will be up for grabs in each Upper House election, which take place every three years.

Specifically, the bill will increase the number of seats in Saitama Prefecture — one of the most populated constituencies — to eight from six, and this is projected to reduce the vote-disparity rate to less than three, down from the 3.08 logged in the summer 2016 election.

It will also add four seats to the roster of those that fall under the electoral system known as proportional representation and enable each party to set aside a “special quota.” Candidates placed on this exclusive list will be prioritized in being afforded seats their party secured under proportional representation.

What’s the intended purpose of the bill?

The bill — especially its special quota system — is seen as a measure to “bail out” some LDP incumbents at risk of losing their jobs due to a 2015 electoral reform that rectified a vote-value disparity by regrouping four sparsely populated constituencies into two.

The reorganization resulted in neighboring Tottori and Shimane prefectures, for example, being combined into one constituency. The same went for the Tokushima and Kochi prefectures on Shikoku Island.

Combining two constituencies into one means either of the two lawmakers representing the prefectures will have to give up running in the constituency from which they were elected when the summer Upper House election takes place next year. The special quota system proposed by the LDP is widely regarded as a way to secure seats for these politicians.

What has been the response to the bill?

Opposition parties and the media have decried the planned increase in Diet seats as a “partisan” measure that prioritizes the needs of politicians.

Retaining seats under the special quota system essentially offsets any progress made by the 2015 reduction of seats in rural areas to equalize the weight of a single vote, independent lawmaker Hiroyuki Konishi told an Upper House committee Wednesday.

“It would basically revive disparities once corrected by the combination of constituencies. I think this raises some serious constitutional questions,” Konishi said, referring to rights to equality guaranteed by the Constitution.

The LDP plan will make Japan’s electoral system more “complicated” and “extremely hard to understand,” the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun daily said in an editorial last month. “Driven by partisan interests, the reform is unlikely to gain public understanding.”

The public seems largely skeptical of the changes in store, too. An opinion poll conducted by the Japan News Network this past weekend showed that 69 percent were opposed to the LDP’s bill, versus 15 percent who supported it.

But Kamon Iizumi, governor of Tokushima Prefecture, confessed to mixed feelings. While describing it as “regrettable” that the vote-value disparities will go uncorrected, Iizumi told a news conference last month that he thinks “highly” of the LDP proposal in that it addresses the main concern of his prefecture — which is one of those subject to the merger.

“The special quota system does help avert — however tentatively — the prospect that no one will be elected to the Upper House on behalf of our constituency,” Iizumi said.

Why now?

The LDP originally pursued a constitutional amendment featuring, among other things, the establishment of a new clause making it mandatory that at least one Upper House member will be elected from each of the nation’s 47 prefectures.

But the prospect of amending the charter diminished after Abe’s administration was caught up earlier this year in twin favoritism scandals that jolted pro-revision momentum to a halt, forcing the LDP to propose the bill almost out of nowhere.