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Opposition says LDP prioritized 'partisan interests' with increase of Upper House seats

Kyodo, JIJI

The passage of a bill to increase the number of Upper House seats is seen by many as the Liberal Democratic Party doing what it can to boost the re-election hopes of specific incumbents, with some opposition lawmakers calling it a move made primarily for “partisan interests”.

The approval of the bill Wednesday in the Lower House to add six seats to the House of Councilors, or Upper House, came despite ongoing debates over downsizing the Diet as the country’s population shrinks. The bill passed by majority vote in the Lower House, controlled by the LDP and its junior coalition partner, Komeito. The bill had already cleared the House of Councilors last week and a Lower House panel Tuesday.

At the same time, however, some critics say the special seat quota system, to be introduced under the revised law, should be attractive to not only ruling parties but also the opposition.

The quota system elects candidates from a list presented by each political party, based on their location, in the proportional representation format for Upper House polls.

The LDP says the bill will ensure Upper House elections are fairer because it helps to narrow what is known as vote-value disparity — the difference in weight of a single vote between urban and rural constituencies.

While acknowledging criticism over the six additional seats, Wataru Takeshita, chair of the LDP General Council, said the addition was necessary to make sure each prefecture gets at least one Upper House member, which is “the most important thing.”

Opposition parties have criticized the LDP for prioritizing “partisan interests” over solving vote-value disparity.

The Diet affairs chief of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, Kiyomi Tsujimoto, lashed out at the ruling party for pushing through a bill that benefits itself, saying it was the “climax” of the LDP’s high-handed politics.

The increase, opposition lawmakers have claimed, is intended to “bail out” incumbent LDP lawmakers who cannot run for election from their rural constituencies in the next Upper House election, due to be held next summer.

Among the six new seats to be added to the Upper House, populous Saitama Prefecture will see its number of representatives move from six to eight, while four seats will be added to the proportional representation system, bringing the total number of seats to 248.

Its the first increase to the number of Upper House seats since 1970, when two seats were created for representatives from Okinawa Prefecture, two years ahead of the return of the islands to Japan from U.S. control.

Vote disparity has been an ongoing problem as the population continues to decline outside of major cities.

Citizen groups have repeatedly filed lawsuits following 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 weight gap was around fivefold — were held “in a state of unconstitutionality” and ordered the Diet to address the sharp imbalance in vote-value.

The election law was revised in 2015 to unite two pairs of prefectures with the smallest populations — Tottori and neighboring Shimane as well as Tokushima and adjoining Kochi — into two constituencies with one seat each. Upper House members serve six-year terms. Every three years an election is held for half of the chamber’s seats.

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

But the reform would increase the number of seats allocated to the proportional representation system by four and introduce a special quota which allows candidates to win a seat regardless of the number of votes obtained.

Takeshita said Wednesday that the quota system is “essential for preventing some potential candidates from failing to run” in Upper House elections, apparently referring to the merged constituencies. He heads the LDP’s chapter in Shimane.

On Friday the LDP plans to release its first official candidate list for the next Upper House election, aiming to implement the special quota system for candidates who would be unable to run from merged constituencies.

Still, some opposition party officials left open the possibility of utilizing the special quota system in the future.

“The system could be useful in helping members who are essential for party management win seats preferentially,” a senior CDPJ official said.

“It may be utilized for female and LGBT candidates,” a senior official of the Democratic Party for the People said.

The addition of two seats to the Saitama constituency was generally welcomed because the move increases the chances of medium-sized parties winning a seat in one of the biggest constituencies in terms of the number of seats allocated.

Saitama has the highest number of voters per lawmaker in the country and the reform is aimed at narrowing the disparity rate between the most and least populous constituencies to less than three.

The top court ruled last year that the 2016 Upper House election, which was held with a disparity rate of up to 3.08 times, was constitutional.