Diet members discussing electoral reforms need to correct the huge disparity in vote value between constituencies in time for the next national elections to be held by 2016. Lawmakers should also set their sights on an overhaul of the electoral systems for the Diet’s two houses and explore what kinds of systems would be appropriate for the different roles of the two chambers under the nation’s bicameral system.

Electoral reforms are a sensitive issue for lawmakers that affect their chances of winning Diet seats, and political parties rarely agree on such matters because their very partisan interests are at stake. The ruling coalition and several opposition parties have recently agreed to set up a third-party panel of experts to discuss Lower House electoral reforms, after the parties themselves failed to narrow their differences.

The Liberal Democratic Party-led alliance calls for reducing proportional representation seats, while the Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition forces say seats should be cut from electoral districts with less population and added to more populous constituencies, thereby narrowing vote-value disparity.

The LDP is reluctant to cut the seats allocated to constituencies because it means cutting the seats occupied by its own members after the party won by a landslide in the last general election. The Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, which have not agreed to setting up the third-party panel, oppose cuts in the number of Diet seats and call for a new system based primarily on proportional representation.

Creation of a third-party panel might help to sort out the issues complicated by partisan interests. But if the matter is to be put in the hands of such a panel, the political parties need to agree on the scope of its agenda and commit to following its recommendations for changing the election law.

A similar panel might also be needed on electoral reforms in the Upper House, where discussions among the parties are also making little headway. Half of the upper chamber’s seats will be up for grabs in the next triennial election in the summer of 2016. The four-year term of the current Lower House members expire at the end of 2016. Correcting the disparity in vote value between populous and less populous constituencies — which has been ruled as either “unconstitutional” or “in a state of unconstitutionality” by courts — is urgent for both houses of the Diet.

While there will be limits to what can be done before 2016, discussions of electoral reforms should include the fundamental issue of whether the current systems match the different roles and functions of the two Diet chambers. Currently members of both houses are elected through a combination of constituency races and proportional representation.

The Lower House holds supremacy over the Upper House in the election of the prime minister as well as in approval of government budget and ratification of treaties. It can override an Upper House rejection of a legislative bill with a two-thirds majority vote. On the other hand, the lower chamber can be dissolved at any time in the course of its members’ four-year tenure, but the six-year term of Upper House members would not be cut short by snap elections.

Despite such differences, Upper House members mostly act along the same partisan lines of their Lower House colleagues, raising criticism that it fails to serve as a check against the more powerful lower chamber.

By the time of the next general election, the current Lower House electoral system based on single-seat constituencies and regional proportional representation blocs will be two decades old since it was first introduced in 1996. While the single-seat constituency system was intended to facilitate changes of government between major parties, it could enable dominance of Lower House seats by a single party with less than 50 percent of the popular vote — as in the 2012 election, in which the LDP gained 79 percent of the constituency seats with only 43 percent of the vote.

Vote-value disparity is much wider in the Upper House than in the Lower House, and further correction of the gap is becoming difficult under the current framework of constituencies, which is based on prefectural borders.

The LDP reportedly opposes redrawing the electoral districts across prefectures because it would change “the characteristics of the Upper House as an assembly of representatives from the nation’s 47 prefectures” — even though the Constitution says Diet members are representatives of all the people in the nation.

Clearly both Diet chambers need an overhaul of their electoral systems, and in the process, it is crucially important to clarify the different roles of the two chambers. In the mid-2000s, members of constitutional research committees set up in both chambers of the Diet reportedly concurred that the two houses need to be given different roles and that lawmakers in the two chambers should be chosen through different electoral systems.

Participants in the Upper House panel are said, for example, too have cited studies of long-term policy agendas, screening of the state’s fiscal results, oversight of the administrative branch and evaluation of government policies as areas in which the upper chamber plays distinct roles. But none of the committees’ discussions have been translated into specific action for reforms.

The lack of clarity over the respective roles of the two chambers is behind the lack of consensus over reform of the electoral systems. Political parties push for systems that best serve their own interests. They should set their partisan interests aside and consider what kind of electoral system would best serve the functions of each chamber of the Diet.

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