The ruling coalition and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan have worked out a bill to correct defects in the existing election system. If approved by the current Diet, the proposed changes to the Public Office Election Law will apply to the next Lower House.

The 1994 amendments to that law reconstituted the Lower House into a 500-member chamber consisting of 300 single-member district seats and 200 proportional representation seats. The number of PR seats has been reduced by 20 under a bill that cleared the Diet last month with the backing of three ruling parties — the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and New Komeito.

The central issue has been and still is: What kind of election system can best reflect the wishes of the electorate? Is it the single-seat district system? The medium-size constituency system? The PR system? Or is it a combination of them all?

Japanese politics has been in turmoil since 1993 when the collapse of the so-called 1955 regime — the LDP one-party rule that had continued nearly four decades — triggered a wave of party realignments. In the absence of a national consensus on the desirable political system, the political parties have tinkered with technical aspects of the election system.

The bill sponsored by the ruling coalition and the DPJ calls for these steps:

(1) Prohibiting the election of a PR candidate who fails to gain the legally required number of votes — one-sixth of the total number of valid votes cast — in a single-seat district. The current system allows “double-track” candidacy, by which the same candidate runs both from a single-seat district and under the PR system.

(2) Banning the change of party affiliation by a Lower House or Upper House member elected under the PR system.

(3) Prohibiting a single-seat district member who has resigned to run for head of a local government, such as prefectural governor, from running in a by-election held to fill the vacancy created by his or her resignation.

(4) Holding Lower House by-elections twice a year, in April and October.

(5) Banning the use of public-address systems by parties and political groups for the purpose of publicizing books and pamphlets concerning their candidates during the campaign period.

(6) Legalizing the payment of compensation to sign-language interpreters working in connection with campaigning.

The Japan Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party are opposed to (1), (4) and (5). With the DPJ, the largest opposition party, siding with the ruling coalition, the latter’s attempt to divide the opposition has succeeded.

The most controversial of the six proposals is (1), prohibiting a double-track candidate from winning a PR seat unless he or she has gathered the required minimum number of votes in a single-seat district. In the 1996 Lower House poll and in subsequent by-elections, 10 candidates won PR seats despite the fact they had lost in single-seat districts because of their failure to secure the legal minimum vote. Of these 10 legislators, five are Social Democrats, four are Communists and one is a Democrat.

Double-track candidacy has come under strong criticism from the voting public. This is because a candidate who has failed to collect even the legal minimum number of votes in a single-seat district can still be elected under the PR system if he or she is listed as a PR candidate.

Proposal (2), which bans the change of party affiliation by a PR legislator, is reasonable because candidates running for PR seats are chosen on the basis of party affiliation. This practice has also come under public fire, especially since a member of Shinshinto (New Frontier Party) who had fought against the LDP in the 1996 election joined that party the next year.

“Party hopping” became fashionable as politicians changed affiliations amid shifting party alliances. However, these acts betrayed the voters who cast their ballots for those legislators on the basis of party alignment. In fact, the political consciousness of Japanese people declined sharply in the latter half of the 1990s, as evidenced by the deep distrust of politics and the steep rise in the number of uncommitted voters who do not support any of the existing parties.

In this regard, NHK’s opinion polls, which are held every five years, provide significant results. In the 1973 survey, when asked whether voting in a parliamentary election affects government policy, 65.7 percent said yes. In the 1998 poll, however, the percentage of positive answers dropped sharply to 40.7 percent, while negative answers doubled from 28 percent to 55.3 percent.

In 1996, between the two NHK polls, a Lower House election was held under a new system that combined single-seat districts and the PR formula. An NHK pollster analyzed the reversal of findings — “no” answers exceeding “yes” answers — this way: “It seems people were disappointed with the new election system because it had various defects, such as a loser in a single-seat district still winning under the PR system. This feeling combined with the prevailing turmoil in the political and economic situation.”

NHK also asked whether the opinions and wishes of ordinary people are reflected in government policy. In 1973, 21.1 percent replied positively; in 1998 the figure dropped in half, to 10.6 percent. By contrast, negative replies increased from 71.6 percent to 85.6 percent. Critical responses increased sharply in the five years beginning in 1993.

Apparently reflecting deepening disappointment with politics, the proportion of uncommitted voters jumped from 31.6 percent in 1993 to 52.3 percent in 1998. In the same period the LDP’s popularity rating plunged by nearly 10 percent to 24 percent. People who support the established parties are now in the minority. The end of the LDP’s monopoly on power ushered in a multiparty period, yet established parties have failed to change enough to meet the wishes of people hard hit by the postbubble recession.

The lines of existing single-seat districts are to be changed based on the results of this year’s national census. Meanwhile, under the coalition agreement reached last autumn, the election law is to be revised again, also based on the census results, to reduce the number of Lower House seats by another 30 — mostly in single-member districts. However, the agreement hinges on the outcome of the coming election, which must be held by October.

The nation needs a better election system. For that, a national debate should be conducted from a longer-term perspective on the various issues involved — not only seat reduction, but other issues such as developing a more effective constituency system. The debate should aim to build an election system that will ensure political stability and enable the smooth transfer of power between parties with strong leadership.

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