The plan put forward by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition to reform the Lower House electoral system is only a partial step that shelves the fundamental overhaul needed to close the sharp disparity of votes across electoral districts, as proposed by a panel of experts advising the speaker of the chamber, for several more years. The bill to amend the Public Offices Election Law to cut 10 Lower House seats and redraw some electoral districts will likely clear the Diet during its current session on the strength of the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance. But the administration and the coalition still need to explain why voters have to wait longer for the more fundamental reform.
The LDP-Komeito bill, which the Diet began deliberating on Friday, will trim the number of Lower House seats from the current 475 to 465 by cutting six from the 295 seats allocated to single-seat constituencies and four others from the 180 elected through regional proportional representation. The six seats will be cut from Aomori, Iwate, Mie, Nara, Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures. Electoral districts in these prefectures will then be redrawn so the maximum gap in the value of votes between constituencies across the country will fall within 2 to 1 based on the 2015 national census.
However, a new method of distributing Lower House seats in ways that more accurately reflect the population breakdown across prefectures — which the third-party experts panel called for in its recommendations to the Lower House speaker in January — will be introduced on the basis of the next census to be held in 2020. This will mean that it would take at least a few more years after the 2020 census for a Lower House election to be held under the new method.
The sharp disparity in the weight of votes between populous and less populous electoral districts — in which voters in some constituencies have more power in electing their representatives to the Diet than those in others — is a chronic problem in national elections in this country. It happens because Diet seats are not allocated according to the distribution of the population. The Supreme Court ruled the situation in the last three Lower House elections in 2009, 2012 and 2014 — when the maximum disparity topped 2 to 1 — to be in a “state of unconstitutionality, though it fell short of invalidating the vote results.
Such a disparity in the value of votes exists runs counter to the principle of equality under the Constitution. It distorts the representation of popular will in the Diet. The top court’s decisions even raise doubts about the legitimacy of the electoral process and the lawmakers chosen to the Diet through the elections. Correcting the disparity is an urgent task.
Talks among political parties to resolve the problem, however, have gone nowhere. Efforts to correct the imbalance in the value of votes entails shifting the allocation of Diet seats from less populous to more populous parts of the country. Political parties with strongholds in depopulated, rural areas of Japan tend to resist these efforts, with their lawmakers protesting that reducing the Diet seats for those areas will leave voters in rural constituencies unheard in national politics. Following its landslide victories in recent Lower House elections, the LDP now dominates the seats from such constituencies.
The impasse led the Lower House speaker to commission the panel of experts in 2014 to come up with a solution, and the panel proposed to the speaker in January the new method that more accurately reflects the population in the distribution of Lower House seats. It will replace the current method — which has been singled out by the Supreme Court as a key obstacle to correcting the gap in the value of votes — of first giving one seat to each of the 47 prefectures and then allocating the remaining seats according to the population breakdown. Though it will not fully eliminate the problem of vote value disparity, the maximum gap across prefectures — calculated on the basis of the 2015 national census — will shrink from 1.885 to 1 under the current system to 1.668 to 1 if the new method is introduced. The disparity across electoral districts will depend on how the constituencies will be redrawn within each prefecture.
The LDP-proposed bill, also endorsed by Komeito, will introduce the new method on the basis of the next census to be held in 2020, and before that takes place, cuts seats allocated to six less populous prefectures in order to trim the maximum gap in the value of votes between constituencies within 2 to 1. That may work as a stopgap measure. But past examples show minimum steps will be quickly overtaken by the unabated population flight from rural to urban areas. Amendments to the election law in 2012 and 2013 that cut seats from five prefectures reduced the disparity to within 2 to 1 at one point, but the gap widened to 2.14 to 1 by the time the next election was held in December 2014. It is obvious that the LDP set aside introduction of the new method to buy time for the tough job of adjusting the interests of lawmakers elected from the large numbers of constituencies to be affected.
A competing bill proposed by the opposition Democratic Party, meanwhile, would introduce the new method on the basis of the 2010 national census. Its chances of being enacted, however, is nil given the LDP-Komeito bloc’s hold on the Diet.
Even if the LDP-proposed bill clears the current Diet session, it will take at least another year before the electoral districts in the six prefectures in question are redrawn. A snap election that might take place before that will have to be held under the current system, in which the maximum vote value disparity based on the 2015 census reaches 2.334 to 1. Abe and the LDP reportedly calculate that as long as the electoral reform bill has cleared the Diet, the Supreme Court won’t rule that the vote value gap in the next Lower House election is unconstitutional. However, such political considerations will not change the fact that people will continue to be denied the equal weight in their votes — a serious problem that won’t be resolved until the flaws in the electoral system are fundamentally addressed.
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