A third-party panel of experts has begun discussions over reform of the Lower House electoral system, after talks among the ruling and opposition parties failed to make progress on the issue as their partisan interests collided with each other.
Doubts linger, though, over whether the parties will commit to carrying out the panel’s recommendations since it was not given legally binding power over its proposals. Lawmakers involved in the reform should realize that the panel was created because they were unable to make a decision on their own and honor its recommendations when they’re put forward.
The 15-member panel, chaired by former University of Tokyo President Takeshi Sasaki, was created as an advisory commission for Lower House Speaker Bunmei Ibuki. They agreed in its first meeting in September that they will first discuss the gap in the value of votes between constituencies in Lower House elections. Its agenda will also include the evaluation of the current electoral system combining single-seat constituencies and proportional representation, cuts to the number of Lower House seats, and fundamental reform of the chamber’s electoral system.
Just as in the upper chamber of the Diet, correcting the disparity in the value of votes must be addressed immediately as speculation has emerged that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might dissolve the Lower House for a snap election well before the four-year term of its current members expire in December 2016.
Last year the Supreme Court ruled that the maximum 2.43:1 gap in the value of votes between less populous and populous constituencies in the December 2012 election was “in a state of unconstitutionality.” While a minor reapportionment of seats adopted in 2013 reduced the gap to less than 2:1, the disparity is estimated to have since widened beyond the mark under the latest demographic data due to continuing population flight from rural to urban areas.
The Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito and the Democratic Party of Japan agreed in November 2012 — just before the LDP retook power from the DPJ — to cut the number of Lower House seats as a measure to show that lawmakers would take steps to cut their own expenses as they asked voters to bear the increased burden of consumption tax hikes. However, proposals put forward by the ruling and opposition parties reflect their divergent partisan interests.
The LDP is calling for eliminating 30 proportional representation seats while setting aside a preferential quota for small parties — an apparent step to placate its coalition partner Komeito. On the other hand, the DPJ and other opposition parties advocate reducing 18 to 30 of the seats allocated to single-seat constituencies in rural constituencies and adding a few seats to urban districts, thereby narrowing the disparity in the value of votes.
The LDP is averse to cutting seats for single-seat constituencies — where the party sharply increased its strength in the 2012 election. It says the problem of vote-value disparity was resolved in the 2013 reapportionments.
Diet members are representatives of the people. It is doubtful whether sheer cuts in their number will serve the interests of voters. The question is whether the electoral system correctly represents the voters’ will in the Diet. There will be other ways to cut public expenses of lawmakers, including cuts to the annual ¥32 billion government subsidies to political parties or the ¥1 million monthly allowance for each Diet member to cover communication and travel expenses.
The single-seat constituency system in itself has various problems with the representation of popular will, including enabling a party with less than a majority of popular votes to win a dominant share of the seats at stake.
The expert panel should take time to evaluate the merits and deficiencies of the system introduced to the Lower House in the mid-1990s. Before that, it needs to come up with remedies to more immediate problems — in particular the disparity in the value of votes — in time for the next general election.