The amendment to the Public Offices Election Law that was hastily enacted this week toward the end of the 150-day regular Diet session, rejiggering the Upper House electoral system in time for the next election in summer 2019, highlights all the more the need for a more fundamental overhaul. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party was seeking to fix a problem facing its own members caused by the readjustment of electoral districts in the previous round of reform to narrow the gap in the vote value between constituencies. However, this amendment has made the proportional representation system for Upper House elections even more complicated and hard to understand for voters.

The number of Upper House seats was raised from 242 to 248 — the first increase since 1970, when two seats were added to the chamber to prepare for the return of Okinawa to Japanese rule in 1972. In this round, two seats were given to Saitama Prefecture — which has the largest number of eligible voters per each Upper House seat allocated — while four were added to the proportional representation segment. Half of the Upper House seats — those representing electoral districts alongside those selected through proportional representation — come up for grabs every three years.

Opponents say that an increase in Diet seats is unacceptable when the nation’s population is on the decline and as the government is asking voters for a higher public burden in such forms as a higher consumption tax. Others say there are limits to fixing the disparity in the value of votes between populous and less populous electoral districts while avoiding an increase in the total number of seats. The seats added to the Saitama constituency are estimated to cut the maximum disparity in the value of votes from 3.08 to 1 in the 2016 election to less than 3 to 1 in the next campaign.

The larger problem will be in proportional representation. Under the current system, candidates on each party’s proportional representation list are given an Upper House seat in the order of how many votes they received (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 amendment allows each party to set aside a special quota of candidates on its list who would be prioritized over other candidates irrespective of the votes they collected. Since there is effectively no limit on the number of candidates that can be put on the “special” list, two different rules can coexist — at each party’s discretion — over how proportional representation candidates will be chosen to get a Diet seat.

Why did the LDP rejigger the system? Because when Upper House electoral districts were redrawn and seats were reallocated to narrow the gap in the value of votes in the 2015 electoral reform, two pairs of less populous prefectures — Tottori with Shimane and Tokushima with Kochi — were combined into two electoral districts, with the number of seats allocated to them also cut in half. That meant that LDP incumbents in these prefectures — traditional LDP strongholds — needed to compete with their party colleagues to run from their hometown constituencies.

The LDP earlier sought to resolve the problem by changing the Constitution — to say that at least one Upper House member must be chosen from each of the 47 prefectures in the chamber’s triennial election. When it became evident that such an amendment would be difficult to pass in time for the 2019 election, the party came up with this revision to the election law. The LDP reportedly intends to use the special quota for proportional representation to ensure that its members who are unable to run from their hometown electoral districts will get Upper House seats.

Whether the amendment represents an attempt by the LDP to adjust the electoral system in favor of its partisan interests, it seems clear that the amendment is far from the fundamental overhaul of the Upper House electoral system that parties pledged in a supplementary clause to the 2015 reform legislation that they were supposed to adopt in time for the 2019 election. In fact, it appears to symbolize the many unresolved problems besetting the system.

The disparity in the value of votes is a serious issue that threatens the principle of equality under the Constitution. Efforts to fix the problem amid the nation’s demographic trends will collide with the question of regional representation — with lawmakers elected from rural depopulated areas warning that population-based cuts to the allocation of Diet seats will leave voters in those areas unheard in national politics. Those questions were set aside in the latest amendment but need to be addressed in the promised overhaul of the electoral system.

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