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Japan’s Lower House panel clears contentious LDP election reform bill

Kyodo

A Lower House panel on Tuesday cleared a controversial bill, proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling party, to reform the electoral system.

The proposed legislation will increase the number of seats in the Upper House in the name of reducing what is known as the vote-value disparity.

Opposition parties and critics have accused the Liberal Democratic Party of putting their “partisan interests” above rectifying the gap in the weights of single votes between urban and rural constituencies.

They argue that the planned increase in lawmakers under the bill — which contrasts with public calls to trim their numbers to save taxpayers’ money, and the nation’s shrinking population — is also designed to “bail out” incumbent LDP lawmakers who will not be able to run for their current rural constituencies in the upcoming Upper House election.

With the panel’s approval of the bill, despite opposition parties’ objections, it is most likely to be passed by the ruling coalition-controlled Lower House plenary session and to be enacted into law.

The bill has already been passed by the House of Councillors.

The passage of the bill by the more powerful House of Representatives will add six seats to the 242-seat Upper House in the run-up to the chamber’s next election, set to be held in the summer of next year.

Specifically, two seats will be added to the populous Saitama prefectural constituency and four more to the proportional representation system.

Disparity in vote value has long been a problem in Japan as its population, particularly outside major cities, is steadily shrinking. Citizen groups repeatedly file lawsuits after each national election claiming that the gap violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equality.

The Supreme Court ruled that the 2010 and 2013 Upper House elections — in which the vote-value disparity reached up to 5.00 times and 4.77 times, respectively — were held “in a state of unconstitutionality” and ordered parliament to address the vote-value imbalance.

The election law was revised in 2015 to reduce the disparities, uniting two pairs of prefectures in the west of Japan — Tottori and neighboring Shimane, which have the country’s smallest populations, as well as Tokushima and adjoining Kochi — and merging them into two constituencies with one seat each.

That change means that two of the four incumbent LDP members elected in 2013 from the four prefectures, before the 2015 streamlining, will lose their chance to run in the integrated constituencies next year.

In what could be seen as an attempt to allow them to continue in their roles, the planned reform would increase the number of seats allocated under the proportional representation system by four and introduce a “special quota” through which candidates can also be elected according to their place on a list submitted by each party.

The change is likely to make the country’s election system even more complicated.

The Saitama district, adjacent to Tokyo, has the highest number of voters per lawmaker in Japan. The reforms aim at narrowing the disparity rate between the most and least populous constituencies to less than three. But last year the 2016 Upper House election, which was held with a disparity rate of up to 3.08 times, was found by the top court to have been “constitutional.”