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The Upper House has passed and sent to the Lower House a bill to revise the Public Offices Election Law in order to rectify disparities in the relative value of a vote in Upper House elections. The bill, submitted by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito, is likely to become law by the end of this month. An Upper House election is to be held next year in accordance with it.

The revision, however, comes too late and does too little. The bill incorporates only a temporary remedy, and a new rectification measure will be necessary sooner or later.

A January 2004 ruling by the Supreme Court on an Upper House election held in 2001 triggered the move to revise the law. In that election, the maximum disparity in the relative value of a vote reached 5.06. The proposed revision reduces the disparity to only 4.84. Disparity is measured by dividing the number of voters in a constituency by the number of Diet seats allocated to the constituency and then comparing the result from constituency to constituency.

The 2004 Upper House election results in the constituencies of Tottori Prefecture and Osaka Prefecture give a glimpse of the effects of vote-value disparity. While a Tottori candidate was successfully elected by garnering just 150,000 votes, an Osaka candidate failed even after winning 710,000 votes.

Under a “four plus/four minus” formula in the bill, the number of seats in the Tochigi and Gunma constituencies will be reduced from four each at present to two each, while those in the Chiba constituency will increase from four to six, and in the Tokyo constituency, from eight to 10. Since half of the Upper House seats come up for election every three years, the number of seats to be contested in the next election is one each in Tochigi and Gunma prefectures, three in Chiba Prefecture and five in Tokyo.

The Supreme Court ruled that the 2001 election was constitutional. But six of the 15 justices on the Grand Bench regarded the election as unconstitutional. Moreover, four of the nine justices who upheld the constitutionality of the election warned in a concurring opinion that if the situation were not corrected, the possibility existed that a future Upper House election would be deemed unconstitutional.

The Upper House did not start discussions on rectifying disparity until May 2005. A drastic remedy was unlikely from the first because the Upper House reform council started its work on the premise that the total number of seats for local constituencies and for the proportional representation system would not change, and that the practice of putting half of the Upper House seats up for election every three years would continue.

At one time, there was a talk of the ruling coalition and opposition forces jointly submitting a bill to revise the distribution of Upper House seats. But partisan interests made a joint proposal impossible. The ruling coalition came up with the four plus/four minus formula for adding and subtracting seats.

The Democratic Party of Japan proposed a plan that would have reduced the maximum disparity to 3.8 by combining Tottori Prefecture, the prefecture with the smallest population, with adjacent Shimane Prefecture into one constituency, among other things. But this plan was tabled and died.

The biggest problem with the distribution of Upper House seats is the lack of clear, obligatory rules for adjusting the number of seats to changes in population. For Lower House local constituencies (which are all single seat), demarcations of constituencies must be adjusted on the basis of the national census every 10 years so that the maximum vote-value disparity is reduced, in principle, to less than 2.

It may be necessary to give consideration to prefectures whose populations are small. But Japan is not a federal union like the United States where each state is entitled to two Senate seats without regard to population size. It is logical to assume that equality under the law, as guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution, would include equality of the value of each vote.

At this point Upper House members would be wise to seriously consider the opinion that the chamber should be abolished altogether because it appears to merely duplicate the role of the Lower House. It is clear that the four plus/four minus formula fails to address the real issue at stake. It is urgent that Upper House members consider radical change in the design of the Upper House election system so that the chamber can differentiate itself from the Lower House in character.

Earnest efforts must be made to strengthen the raison d’etre for the Upper House as a component of the bicameral system stipulated in the Constitution.

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