The Liberal Democratic Party’s draft plan to amend the Constitution to eliminate Upper House electoral districts that combine more than one prefecture addresses only one aspect of the complicated problems afflicting the electoral system. The LDP’s plan seeks to make sure that at least one Upper House member is elected from each of the nation’s 47 prefectures when half of the seats in the upper chamber come up for grabs every three years. It is a response to the creation of two pairs of constituencies that combined less populous prefectures, Tottori with Shimane and Tokushima with Kochi, in the 2016 election as part of the efforts to narrow the large disparity in the value of votes between electoral districts.
LDP lawmakers argue that depopulated areas of the country will lose representation in national politics if Diet seats are allocated strictly according to population dispersal. That problem will indeed get more serious as population flight from rural parts of Japan to large urban areas continues unabated. In 2017, 40 of the 47 prefectures suffered a net population outflow, while the net inflow to the greater Tokyo area (also comprising Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa) accelerated to nearly 120,000 people.
But merely stipulating in the Constitution that at least one Upper House member be elected from each prefecture ignores the problem of the gap in vote values across constituencies, which runs counter to the principle of equality under the law as guaranteed in Article 14. Characterizing Upper House members as representatives of the prefectures that elect them also raises the question of consistency with Article 43, which stipulates that both houses of the Diet “shall consist of elected members, representatives of all the people.”
Eliminating Upper House electoral districts that combine more than one prefecture is one of the four priority areas of constitutional revision that the LDP has been discussing — along with amending the war-renouncing Article 9, creating a new provision for responses to emergency situations and making education free. Last week, the party’s headquarters on constitutional revision adopted the draft text of an amendment of the electoral system — the first among the four areas.
The LDP’s draft specifically seeks to amend Article 47, which says that electoral districts, voting methods and other matters pertaining to the system for electing members of both houses of the Diet “shall be fixed by law,” and Article 92, which says that regulations concerning organizations and operations of local public entities “shall be fixed by law in accordance with the principle of local autonomy.” Under the draft, Article 92 would be revised to define cities, towns and villages as “basic local public entities” and prefectures as “broad-based local public entities.” Article 47 would be amended to say that: 1) each electoral district in both chambers of the Diet will be based on population but borders of administrative districts and regional integrity will be taken into account; 2) if the prefecture makes up an electoral district in Upper House elections, at least one member will be chosen in each election.
Such an amendment could impede efforts to narrow the disparity in the value of votes between populous and less populous constituencies — which means that a ballot cast by a voter in a less populous district carries more weight in choosing a Diet member than one cast in a more populous constituency. The decision to combine Shimane and Tottori constituencies, and Tokushima and Kochi districts — with only one member elected from each — in the 2016 election was made after the Supreme Court ruled that the gap in the value of voters in the 2013 race — which reached a maximum of 4.77 to 1 — was in a “state of unconstitutionality.” As the population exodus from rural areas continues, more such less-populated prefectures — many of them traditional LDP strongholds — could be combined as electoral districts.
If the proposed amendment is aimed at ensuring that the voices of local voters in each prefecture will be heard in the Diet, then the Upper House members will take on the character of representatives of their local constituencies, not “representatives of all the people” as stated in Article 43. If only the Upper House is going to be given that role, the question will arise whether the power and function of the upper chamber should be kept similar to that of the Lower House, which, at present, holds roughly the same powers as the Upper House except for its supremacy in such matters as budget deliberations and election of the prime minister. That issue could entail reviewing the structure of the bicameral system. All these larger issues should not be bypassed in discussing the LDP’s draft amendment on the electoral system.