Japan’s electoral system — and the political discussion on its reforms — may often be hard to follow. The latest proposal for reform of the Upper House electoral system, put forth by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, may make it more complicated and even harder to comprehend — for what is widely viewed as partisan considerations. The LDP should think twice about the proposal.
Members of both chambers of the Diet are elected through a combination of electoral districts and proportional representation. And in both chambers, the sharp disparity in the value of votes between electoral districts with larger populations per representative and those with smaller populations has been a growing problem as courts have given sterner rulings on the gap in light of the principle of equality under the Constitution.
Changes in the demarcation of some electoral districts and a reallocation of seats across constituencies introduced in time for the last Upper House election in 2016 reduced the maximum gap in vote values from 4.77 to 1 in the previous race in 2013 to 3.08 to 1. But the changes resulted in creating two electoral districts that combined pairs of less-populous prefectures — Shimane with Tottori and Tokushima with Kochi — with fewer seats allocated to each of these districts. That meant that some of the incumbents elected from these prefectures — traditional strongholds of the LDP — were unable to run in their home constituencies.
To address the ire of its members elected from such constituencies, the LDP earlier tried to pursue amending the Constitution — to make it mandatory that at least one Upper House member will be elected from each of the nation’s 47 prefectures when half the chamber’s seats come up for grabs every three years. But as the prospect of such an amendment looks slim, at least in time for the next Upper House election in 2019, the party came up with the draft reform of the Upper House electoral system — and submitted a relevant bill to the Diet on Thursday, hoping to get it enacted during the current Diet session.
According to the LDP-proposed bill, the total number of Upper House seats would be increased from 242 to 248 — with half of them up for grabs every three years — in a reversal of the trend in recent years to reduce the number of Diet seats. One of the three seats to be added in a triennial election would be allocated to the Saitama Prefecture constituency, which currently has the largest number of eligible voters per lawmaker among Upper House constituencies, so that the maximum gap in the value of votes would be slightly reduced. The other two seats would be added to those elected from proportional representation.
Currently, candidates on each party’s proportional representation list are given Upper House seats in the order of the number of votes they have obtained (voters can either vote for a party or its individual proportional representation candidates, which are then combined to calculate the number of seats won by the party). However, the LDP plan would allow each party to set aside a special quota of up to two candidates on their list — who would be prioritized over other candidates in getting the seats that the party has won irrespective of the votes they have collected.
The LDP says that the quota is meant to ensure that candidates capable enough to serve national politics would be elected. It seems obvious, however, that the quota is intended as a partisan measure to save the party’s incumbents who cannot run in their earlier home constituencies because they were combined with neighboring districts.
It may be debatable whether reducing the number of Diet seats — as was done in a series of electoral system reforms in recent years — is the right answer because doing so makes it even harder to rectify the disparity in the value of votes between electoral districts. Problems that arise from combining less populous prefectures as electoral districts — when all other Upper House constituencies are based on prefectural borders — would need to be addressed. But those are issues that should be considered as part of a broader reform of the Upper House electoral system.
In the last amendment to the Public Offices Election Law on Upper House electoral reform, parties agreed to discuss and reach a conclusion on a fundamental reform of the electoral system in time for the 2019 Upper House election. The LDP and other parties that reached that agreement should consider whether the latest proposal — hastily made barely a year before the 2019 election — is the kind of radical reform that they pledged to pursue.