Lower and upper houses must be reformed at the same time
Although the current Diet session will end in less than one month, discussions on the comprehensive reform of the electoral system of the House of Representatives remain bogged down.
There seems to be no desire in either the ruling or opposition camps to reach an agreement on the matter. This indicates that reform of the lower house election system is unlikely to happen before the end of the current Diet session on June 26.
A bill jointly submitted by the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito for rezoning lower house electoral districts by slashing five seats in the single-seat constituencies is to become law even if the House of Councillors does not discuss on it, through a second vote in the lower house before the end of the Diet session.
The legislation, however, is nothing but a stopgap measure.
Now is the time for both blocs to start fresh and renew discussions for realizing comprehensive reform of the lower house election system.
Fears of Diet functions’ decline
Among factors hampering formulating an accord between the ruling and opposition forces, the biggest is the disagreement over the number of lower house seats to be reduced.
The Democratic Party of Japan has insisted the number of seats, currently 480, be slashed by 80. They argue the parties “must accept some pain” through the seat reduction at a time when they are asking the public to bear the burden of a higher consumption tax.
The issue of cutting the number of lower house seats, however, has nothing to do with rectifying the current disparity in the value of individual votes between the least and most represented constituencies--the issue behind electoral reform discussions.
If the DPJ feels the need to “accept some pain,” it should focus on such steps as curtailing the annual salaries of Diet members and reducing government subsidies for political parties. These measures would certainly be more effective than reducing the number of lower house legislators.
The LDP is in favor of cutting 30 lower house seats in the proportional representation. This would leave 150 seats, 60 of which would be preferentially allotted to parties other than the top vote-getter. The LDP-envisioned reform plan is apparently in consideration of the wishes of its junior coalition partner Komeito. Can it be considered a fair and adequate electoral system to create preferential seat allocations for medium- and small-sized parties?
Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and Your Party, for their part, have proposed that the number of seats be reduced by 144 and 180, respectively.
It is almost as if the parties are vying for public attention simply over the extent of seat reduction.
The fact that the parties seem to have found it effective to curry public favor merely by advocating a larger reduction in the number of lower house seats is deplorable, as these tactics smack of populism. The issue of reducing lower house seats must be discussed separately from the task of reforming the electoral system.
It is worth noting that the number of Japan’s legislators is relatively low compared with other industrially advanced democracies.
The parties in power under the nation’s existing parliamentary system send their lawmakers into the government as Cabinet members, senior vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries.
If the number of Diet seats is reduced, those who have to oversee multiple committees will increase. Additionally, small- and medium-sized parties will face the danger of losing the opportunity to voice their views. The result would be that the legislative powers of the Diet and its function of overseeing the administration could decline.
In March 2011, the Supreme Court ruled the disparity rate in the value of votes in single-seat districts in the 2009 general election, which stood at a maximum 2.3-to-1, was in “a state of unconstitutionality.”
In handing down the decision, the top court pointed out that the current formula of uniformly allotting one single-seat electoral district seat to each of the 47 prefectures is a major cause of the vote-value disparity. It called for the formula to be abolished.
The Supreme Court’s ruling can be seen as the judiciary stepping into the sphere of the discretionary powers of the legislature.
Gap correction not absolute
In 14 lawsuits over the vote-value disparity in connection with the lower house election in December, high courts and their branches across the nation found the gap to be “unconstitutional” in their rulings.
Even the election itself was ruled to be “invalid” in two of these court decisions. However those rulings could be said to be irresponsible in light of the fact that no rules have yet been devised governing the holding of further elections to address such a problem.
The equality of vote values is not the only measure of the electoral system. Constituency elections are held based on administrative zones. Populations in rural areas have been dropping phenomenally in recent times. There are also problems peculiar to specific areas as well as extenuating economic and cultural circumstances that cannot be resolved simply by having constituency seats be a proportional reflection of the population.
The establishment of an election system that can harmonize judicial rulings with real politics on the ground is what is needed.
If the proportional representation system is adopted fully for the lower house election, as advocated by the Japanese Communist Party, the will of the public can be more accurately reflected in the number of seats, thus eliminating the gap in vote value.
But it could make it easier for small and midsize parties to gain more seats, resulting in the creation of many small parties. Coalition governments would become the norm, destabilizing politics and creating a situation in which small and midsize parties hold the key to making policy decisions.
The most crucial question is how to translate the will of the people into a stable government.
To achieve this goal, the only realistic option is the revision of the current single-seat constituency plus proportional representation system, as advocated by the LDP and the DPJ, among others, and the reinstatement of the multiple-seat constituency system as demanded by some small parties.
The electoral system for the upper house must also be reviewed. We face an extraordinary situation in which the election systems of both chambers of the Diet have been judged to be in a “state of unconstitutionality.”
Viewed optimistically, now is an excellent opportunity to reexamine the electoral systems of both Diet houses simultaneously.
Both systems are similar in that they comprise of elections in constituencies and elections held under proportional representation systems.
Roles under bicameral system
An additional problem is that the upper house is said to have become “too strong.”
To put an end to “indecisive politics,” it is essential to engineer electoral systems for both houses that are less liable to cause a divided Diet in which the upper house is controlled by the opposition parties.
First and foremost, it is crucial that fundamental discussions on the division of roles and authority between the two Diet chambers are held. We suggest that debate on revision of constitutional provisions on the bicameral system is also deepened.
As long as both houses continue to insist on their own uniqueness and political parties stick to partisan interests, it will be difficult to reach consensus on this issue, regardless of how much time is spent.
If the current situation continues unabated, there will be no alternative but to refer the matter to an independent third-party organization comprising experts with no partisan affiliations.
In that instance, it would be vital that both the ruling and opposition parties work out legislative arrangements decisively by respecting the recommendations of such a panel.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 31, 2013)