Commentary / Japan

What election system best suits Japan?

by Haruaki Deguchi

More than 20 years have passed since the introduction of the single-seat electoral district system in Japan’s House of Representatives. This reform was accompanied by a restructuring that created proportional representation in the same chamber. Some people still think that the old, multi-seat constituency system functioned better. Let’s think about what kind of electoral system is desirable in Japan.

Before discussing reform of the electoral system, there are two issues we must first consider. The first is the value of a vote. It is the foundation of democracy that each vote cast is equal in value. However, inequality in the value of votes between populous and less populous electoral districts has been a long-standing problem. Despite the Supreme Court’s rulings that the disparity in the value of votes is “in the state of unconstitutionality,” politicians have been slow in rectifying it — a shameful inaction.

Technically, it is not hard to rectify the disparity. If the boundaries of electoral districts are flexibly drawn on the basis of basic resident registers, not necessarily aligned with administrative divisions such as municipalities and prefectures, it will be possible to keep the value of every vote cast to be virtually equivalent to each other.

The second issue is low voter turnout. The turnout is 20 percent among voters in their 20s, 30 percent among those in their 30s and 70 percent among those in their 70s — which has led to a joke that the turnout matches each age bracket. To deal with this serious problem, we need to take steps to lower the cost of voting for young voters and to equalize the voting cost across generations. Japan should introduce online voting through the internet, as is already done in Estonia. We can see that online voting in shareholders’ meetings does not cause any problems, so it is technologically feasible.

When we think about reforming the electoral system itself, we must pay attention to the existence of the powerful second chamber of the Diet — which is rare in the parliamentary systems of other countries. According to Japan’s Constitution, the Lower House, or the House of Representatives, has superiority over the House of Councillors, the Upper House, in deciding the budget and electing the prime minister.

This means that a Lower House election offers voters a chance to choose the administration in power. In Japan’s postwar politics, a genuine change of government by way of a change in the No. 1 party did not happen until 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan took power from the Liberal Democratic Party. But the poor performance of the DPJ-led administration rapidly eroded peoples’ expectations. As a result, the LDP came back to power in 2012.

Nevertheless, one must not make light of the political dynamism inherent to a change of government. A single, one-time experience should not make us give up on the importance of political tensions brought about by a change of government. In this light, a Lower House election should be clearly treated as a means of choosing the government. To make it easier to bring about a change in government, all seats should be elected in the single-seat electoral district system.

Compared with other developed countries, the Japanese Diet does not have too many members. Even if the Lower House reduced its number of seats, cutting the number to 350-400 seats should be enough. To help bring new blood into Japan’s politics, legislation is also called for — even as a temporary measure — to prohibit the relatives of Diet members from running in the same constituencies.

Public subsidies to political parties should be utilized as an incentive to better reflect the voices of women and young people in politics in proportion to their share of the population. As part of this, if the ratio of women and people below 40 does not exceed 40 percent of the party’s candidates in an election, funding should be reduced from the guaranteed full amount.

What then should be the role of the Upper House? Studies of historical changes and examples in other countries, except for countries like the United States with a federal system, indicate that the fundamental role of the second chamber of parliament is to check the first chamber. If so, the composition of the Upper House should reflect the diverse views of the citizens it represents as much as possible. In other words, the Upper House members should be elected in a nationwide proportional representation system — with voters casting their votes only for the parties they support, not individual candidates. The number of seats in such an Upper House should be around 200.

We often hear that people have difficulty understanding the difference between the functions of the Lower and Upper Houses. One reason is that both chambers use similar election systems. If the electoral systems for them are made completely different from each other, the characteristics of each chamber will gradually become clear. Today, the Upper House has roughly the same power as the Lower House — except on budgetary matters and election of the prime minister. Another point is that the Lower House needs a two-thirds majority vote to override an Upper House decision.

With a system like this, people may think that choosing all Upper House members through proportional representation will give a larger weight to minor parties, increase the chances of creating a divided Diet and thus destabilize the administration in power.

But we need to think once again of the inherent function of the Upper House — to check the Lower House. The Lower House elects the prime minister and chooses the government. Its function is to carry out politics, which boils down to making the budget, or distribution of tax money.

Accordingly, the role of the Upper House should be to scrutinize the execution of the budget; in other words, to examine in detail the concrete cost and effect of the expenses and disclose its analysis to the citizens. If the Diet is in session throughout the year, small parties will have enough time and room to express themselves, making it more likely that minority opinions will be reflected in its discussions. It would be hard to imagine that a policy measure whose effects are dubious relative to its cost would be continued in the following year.

In short, the Upper House’s main job should be to scrutinize the execution of the budget. The raison d’etre of minor parties in politics is to reflect the diverse opinions of the citizenry. It should never be for those parties to cast the deciding vote.

The ruling and opposition parties should interpret the provisions in the Constitution in a restrained manner as far as budget-related bills are concerned. They must establish a political custom based on a consensus between ruling and opposition parties — that the Upper House will refrain from rejecting such bills passed by the Lower House, respecting the will of the Lower House.

Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 30 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.

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