Diversify forms of local assemblies

A recent proposal by a panel of experts at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry for more diverse forms of municipal assemblies seeks to address a grim challenge to sustaining democracy in Japan’s rural areas. Because of the rapidly aging and declining population, there is a shortage of people willing to run for their local assembly. In small towns and villages, a majority of assembly members win their seats uncontested.

Last year, a sparsely populated village in the mountains of Kochi Prefecture made headlines when it contemplated the idea of abolishing its elected assembly in favor of an all-resident council, which verges on direct democracy, because it feared that the assembly will soon become unsustainable amid a dearth of candidates. Although the village has shelved the idea for now, its problems are not unique and could potentially crop up in many other depopulated municipalities.

Currently, assemblies for prefectures, cities, towns and villages — the deliberative organs of local public entities under Article 93 of the Constitution — run on a uniform mechanism irrespective of size, with members directly elected by local residents voting on budgets and ordinances. The report compiled by the ministry panel last Monday proposed creating two new forms of local assemblies for small towns and villages. Each municipality will be asked to decide between maintaining the current mechanism or adopting one of the two new options.

The first option eases rules against assembly members concurrently holding another job. It is assumed that members are not exclusively working as an officeholder, and their compensation will be kept at supplementary levels. Assembly sessions will be held on weekends or weekday evenings to make holding down a regular job easier. Employees of other local governments as well as executives of companies that do business with the municipality will be eligible to be assembly members, which is barred under current prohibitions. To ensure fairness in business transactions with such companies, matters pertaining to contracts and the disposal of assets will be removed from the assembly’s jurisdiction.

The other option envisages an assembly composed of a small number of full-time elected members. During deliberations on important matters, randomly selected citizens will take part so that wider popular opinion is reflected, though such participants won’t be able to vote on the issue at hand. Both options seek to encourage employed people to run for assembly seats, for example by prohibiting employers from unfairly treating their workers who take time off to run for assembly seats.

Behind the proposal — which was greeted with caution and protests by heads of municipal assemblies — is the growing shortage of candidates in assembly elections held by small municipalities. In the 2015 nationwide series of local elections, 21.8 percent of the assembly seats in towns and villages across Japan were won uncontested — meaning there were not enough candidates to necessitate an election. That ratio surged to 65 percent among municipalities with a population of less than 1,000. About 75 percent of members of town and village assemblies nationwide are age 60 or older, reflecting an unwillingness on the part of younger residents to run for such seats.

The Kochi Prefecture village of Okawa, whose population had declined from 4,000 in 1960 to just 400, was facing the prospect that not enough candidates would emerge in the next election to fill the six seats of its assembly. The internal affairs ministry report, however, concluded that the village’s idea of replacing its assembly with a resident council made up of every eligible citizen — which had previously been adopted only once, in the 1950s, in a remote island village off Tokyo — would not be feasible. It said the village would have too difficult a time gathering all of its residents, many of whom are elderly and lack consistent transportation means, for regular meetings.

The government plans to further weigh the proposal. Diversifying the forms of municipal assemblies may entail changing the power and functions of the assemblies, including relations with the heads of local governments, whose power they are supposed to check. But the situation demands a flexible approach to sustain democratic representation at the local level in the face of Japan’s demographic challenges. All possible means should be explored.