Opposition is already brewing within the Liberal Democratic Party against a proposal compiled by a panel of experts tasked with reforming the Lower House electoral system — even before it is to be formally submitted to the speaker of the Lower House next month. At issue is the reallocation of Lower House seats across the 47 prefectures to narrow the sharp disparity in the value of votes between populous and less-populous electoral districts.
The LDP holds a dominant presence in many of the prefectures that face cuts to their Lower House seats in the proposed reform, and objections from within the party led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spells trouble for the proposed reform. All lawmakers in the Diet, however, should realize that further inaction is not acceptable, since discussions for electoral reform were put in the hands of the expert panel under the Lower House speaker after talks among political parties to resolve the issue went nowhere.
An overhaul of the Lower House electoral system is urgently needed, given that the maximum gap in the value of votes between constituencies in electing representatives to the Lower House has been ruled as being “in a state of unconstitutionality” by the Supreme Court for the last three general elections in a row, although the top court fell short of invalidating the vote results. In the last election in December 2014, a vote in the least populous single-seat constituency carried 2.13 times more power in electing a lawmaker than a vote cast in the most populous district. It is indeed a grave issue that distorts representation of popular will in the Diet and runs counter to equality stipulated in Article 14 of the Constitution.
But correcting the disparity means reducing the Diet seats allocated to less-populous areas and redistributing them to more populous areas — unless the overall number of Lower House seats is changed. Naturally, lawmakers elected from the areas facing seat reductions cry foul, charging that the reform would leave voters in depopulated areas without representation in national politics — and that such a move would run counter to efforts to reverse the population flight to Tokyo.
The proposal compiled by the expert panel, led by Takeshi Sasaki, a former president of the University of Tokyo, calls for reducing the total number of Lower House seats from the current 475 — 295 elected in single-seat constituencies and 180 in proportional representation blocs — to 465 — 289 in electoral districts and 176 in proportional representation. It calls for abolishing the current system of first allocating one seat each to the 47 prefectures and then distributing the remaining district seats according to population — a practice that the top court said is at the root of the steep gap in the value of votes — in favor of a system that more accurately reflects the regional population dispersal.
If the outcome of the 2010 national census is applied, the reform would cut one seat each from Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Niigata, Mie, Shiga, Nara, Hiroshima, Ehime, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Kagoshima and Okinawa prefectures, while Tokyo will gain three and Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa and Aichi will each gain one. As a result, the maximum gap in the value of votes between prefectures would be reduced from the current 1.788 to 1 to 1.621 to 1. In proportional representation,the Tohoku, northern Kanto, Tokai, Kinki and Kyushu blocs would lose one seat and the Tokyo bloc would gain one.
Senior LDP members warn that about 100 members of the Diet would be affected — since the single-seat electoral districts in prefectures that either face the cuts or increases in seats would have to be redrawn. This would require a massive effort, including building a consensus within the ruling party, particularly among the lawmakers who stand to lose their own seats.
That should not be an excuse for continued inaction on the issue of disparity in the value of votes. At the same time, narrowing the gap between populous and less-populous constituencies might be a never-ending process — as long as the population flight from rural to urban areas continues — and Diet seats allocated to depopulated regions continue to be reduced. At some point, the question of how to reconcile the need to end inequality in the value of votes and to ensure Diet representation for depopulated areas will have to be fundamentally addressed.
Article 43 of the Constitution says members of the Diet are “representatives of all the people.” So in theory, the lawmakers do not represent the interests of the constituencies that elect them. But in practice they do, and that’s what’s expected of them by local voters. It’s possible that the calls to ensure Diet representation for depopulated areas will stymie the efforts to ensure the equal value of votes among constituencies. To avert that, the political parties and their members should explore an electoral system that reconciles the two needs. One often suggested idea would be to reform the bicameral system so that one of the Diet chambers would be comprised of regional representatives and play a different function from the other chamber, whose seats would be allocated according to population dispersal.
The expert panel’s proposal would reduce the number of Lower House seats to a postwar low. Major political parties, including the LDP, have promised to eliminate Lower House seats in order to demonstrate that lawmakers are ready to face cuts of their own as they ask the voters to shoulder a greater burden via the consumption tax hike. But that argument sounds off the mark, since Diet seats are the representation of popular will, not lawmakers’ vested interests. Given the nation’s population, the number of Lower House members is not overly large compared with other advanced economies. Reducing the number of Diet seats will make it more difficult for the legislature to represent the diverse popular will. There does not seem to be much ground for cutting the number of Lower House seats much further.
Narrowing the imbalance in the value of votes between constituencies is an urgent task that needs to be carried out in time for the next Lower House general election. But it’s also high time that longer-term discussions are opened to address other problems in the electoral system, including the wisdom of the current single-seat constituencies, which tend to allow a single party to sweep much of the seats at stake without winning a majority of the votes cast.
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