Insufficient electoral reform effort

The inadequacy of an Upper House electoral reform proposal that the Liberal Democratic Party finally agreed to is evident given that even its partner in the ruling coalition, Komeito, refuses to endorse it. It compares poorly with a plan jointly proposed by Komeito and the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan to correct the sharp disparity in the value of votes between electoral districts.

After dragging its feet to come up with its own plan to cut the vote value gap in Upper House elections, the LDP recently agreed to a proposal initiated by Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) and three small opposition parties to cut two seats each from districts in Miyagi, Niigata and Nagano, add two seats each to districts in Hokkaido, Tokyo, Aichi, Hyogo and Fukuoka, and combine the constituencies of Shimane and Tottori, and Tokushima and Kochi, into single districts respectively. Despite the lack of endorsement by its ruling coalition partner, the LDP reportedly plans to table the plan in the Upper House soon, while Komeito and the DPJ appear set to separately submit their version to the Diet.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the disparity in the value of votes in the last Upper House election in 2013 — when a vote cast in a constituency with the least population per Diet seat carried 4.77 times more weight in electing lawmakers than a vote in the district with the largest population per seat — was in a “state of unconstitutionality.” To narrow such a huge gap in the vote value, the top court called for a fundamental overhaul of the electoral system, including changing the current prefecture-based electoral districts.

But the LDP remained opposed to redrawing the Upper House constituencies across prefectural borders. The prefectures with declining populations — in which the number of seats allocated has already been reduced to the minimum possible under the system in which half the chamber’s seats come up for grabs in a triennial election — have long been the party’s traditional strongholds. Combining less populous constituencies to reduce the vote value gap will likely leave local LDP lawmakers competing with each other for survival.

The LDP therefore insisted on a plan to keep the prefecture-based constituencies intact and cut two seats each from three prefectures while adding two each to three others. But that would have only narrowed the maximum gap in the value of votes to 4.31 to 1. Earlier this month, the LDP eventually caved in to pressure and agreed to the proposal from Ishin no To and the other parties, which would keep changes to the prefecture-based electoral districts to the minimum.

That plan reduces the maximum disparity in the value of votes to 2.97 to 1 according to the 2010 national census. But the gap will widen to 3.02 to 1 if the disparity is calculated on the basis of residency data from the beginning of this year. This may represent some improvement from the disparity in the 2013 election, but it is far from enough in terms of ensuring equality in the value of the votes that people cast in electing their representatives.

Komeito has meanwhile agreed with the DPJ to jointly push for a plan to combine 20 prefecture-based constituencies into 10 districts, thereby reducing the maximum gap in the value of votes to 1.95 to 1. Komeito has refused to endorse the LDP’s plan on the grounds that it fails to address the “requirements under the Constitution.”

To placate its members elected from the prefectures whose constituencies would be combined, the LDP is reportedly considering steps to make sure that lawmakers from each of those prefectures would have a seat in the Upper House, such as having the party’s candidates from the prefectures take turns running in the triennial election, or by helping candidates from prefectures unable to run in the constituency races get elected through proportional representation. But the party should realize that such patchwork efforts have limits. With the continuing population flight, more prefecture-based constituencies will likely need to be redrawn in the future to keep the vote value gap from widening again. What the party should be caring about the most is protecting voters’ constitutional rights, not the interests of their own members.