With the passage of a bill amending the flawed Public Offices Election Law, the next Lower House election — which most likely will be held late in June — promises to be a fairer one. The current system, which was used for the first time in the 1996 Lower House election, is a combination of single-member districts and proportional representation. It proved, however, that the system has several defects.
The changes legislated this time around will solve some of those problems. The election system is the foundation of parliamentary democracy. As such, it must be trusted by the people. In this sense, the updated election system still leaves much to be desired; nonetheless, it is an improvement. One change concerns the so-called “double candidacy,” which allows the same candidate to run both from a single-member district and from a PR district. In the last election, some of these candidates lost badly in their single-seat districts but were elected under the PR formula. Under the revised law, any candidate who has failed to collect at least one-tenth of the effective vote in a single-seat district and who has his or her deposit money confiscated will be denied victory as a PR candidate.
Second, by-elections for vacancies in both the Lower and Upper Houses will be held regularly twice a year, in April and October. Third, Lower and Upper House members elected as PR candidates will be prohibited from crossing party lines. In addition, any Diet member who has voluntarily resigned to run for, say, a prefectural governorship will not be allowed to run in a subsequent by-election in his or her former district. And sign-language interpreters — at candidates’ speech meetings, for example — will be duly compensated.
Revisions invariably involve fierce partisan maneuvering. That is not surprising, since they affect the electoral fortunes of each party. That is the main reason the latest revisions fall short of public expectations. By and large, fundamental changes have been conveniently avoided.
Perhaps the most important of these amendments is the one concerning double candidacy. In the 1996 poll, as many as nine candidates were elected under the PR system even though they failed to win even the legally required minimum number of votes (one-sixth of the effective ballots cast in their single-seat districts), raising questions about dual candidacy. But subsequent discussions beat around the bush, avoiding the basic question of whether this practice should be abolished.
Political parties concentrated on technical issues, such as setting specific conditions for PR-based election. The Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partners proposed setting the legal minimum vote as a condition for victory, but the plan was rejected by the Japan Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, both of which have candidates who have a good chance of winning even if they do not meet the legal minimum requirement. The confiscation of deposit money — a penalty for candidates who fail to garner the required minimum number of votes — is the product of compromise.
The issue of double candidacy — which goes to the heart of public trust in the election system — should have been addressed head-on. Also in doubt is the new rule for by-elections, which calls for them to be held twice a year. The ruling parties say holding such elections year-round could introduce an element of instability into the administration. Still, it is undesirable to leave a vacancy unfilled for a long period.
With respect to these and other shortcomings, credit must be given for the efforts that have been made to improve the system. Now, further efforts are needed to address the remaining problems. One of these is the practice of PR-elected members running in single-seat districts in by-elections. Some legislators argued that this type of candidacy should be prohibited. But the suggestion was shelved in the face of strong objections from the LDP, which has adopted the so-called “Costa Rica formula” that allows candidates to run alternately from single-seat districts and the PR constituency.
Another problem is that an unsuccessful candidate can be elected later to fill a PR vacancy even if his or her party no longer exists. Restricting that kind of election was studied, but it has not been included in the latest revisions because of the legal difficulties involved. Among other plans in the works are those that would impose stricter penalties for election-law violations by campaign managers and a plan to allow campaigning via Internet home pages. These and other remaining issues must be settled in ways that will boost public confidence in the election system.
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