Merged constituencies unavoidable for upper house electoral reform
Planned electoral reforms for the House of Councillors represent a major institutional change, as they reexamine the prefecture-based electoral system that the public has been widely familiar with for many years.
The Liberal Democratic Party has decided on a reform plan for the upper house electoral system that centers on merging thinly populated prefectures with neighboring prefectures to create new constituencies. The ruling party plans to submit a bill to the current Diet session to revise the Public Offices Election Law, and aims to apply the new system from an upper house election next summer.
The LDP’s reform plan is exactly what has been called for by the Japan Innovation Party and three other opposition parties, and seeks to create new electoral districts by combining Tottori and Shimane prefectural constituencies and Tokushima and Kochi prefectural constituencies.
It will also change the number of seats allocated to some electoral districts.
As a result, a total of 10 seats will be added to some electoral districts and a total of 10 seats will be cut in other districts, while the total number of seats is maintained at 242 as today.
As a result, the maximum vote-value disparity of 4.77:1 in the 2013 upper house election is expected to be reduced to 2.97:1.
There is a limit to what can be done to correct the gap if that goal is pursued while maintaining the framework of the current electoral system, which combines elections in constituencies and the national proportional representation district. To resolve the vote-value disparity that the Supreme Court ruled to be “in a state of unconstitutionality,” it is unavoidable to merge electoral districts on a limited scale.
Discussions on reform of the electoral system by parliamentary groups in the upper house have been in limbo since they were started in 2013. This is because the LDP, the biggest Diet group, has been persistently passive about pressing for drastic reform.
The opposition parties have vehemently criticized this stance of the LDP. Even its coalition partner, Komeito, reached an agreement with the Democratic Party of Japan to integrate 20 prefectural constituencies into 10.
Long-term perspective vital
The LDP has finally agreed to accept the combination of constituencies, despite opposition from within the party, probably because it could not overcome the pressure from other parties.
Once an accord is reached on combining constituencies as a means of rectifying the vote disparity, it is highly likely that future reforms will also seek to expand the number of merged constituencies. This may make it difficult to return to discussions on introducing a proportional representation bloc election system, as proposed by former upper house President Takeo Nishioka, and a large bloc constituency system.
It is notable that the combined electoral district system has not a few adverse effects.
There are fears that the system creates the possibility that no one from underpopulated prefectures can be represented in the upper house. It will make it unavoidable for the LDP and the DPJ to make such adjustments as fielding candidates alternately from adjacent constituencies, and fielding one of the two candidates in a proportional representation election.
If prefectural administrative units with unique historical and cultural characteristics are shaken up by the adoption of the combined electoral district system, it will weaken the element that lawmakers elected from constituencies represent regional areas.
Amid the growing population gap between urban and rural areas, there are concerns that too much emphasis on securing equality in vote values will make it difficult for regional voices to be reflected in national politics.
Discussions on the electoral system reform must be held from a long-range perspective.
In an effort to promote differentiation of the upper house from the House of Representatives, and on the premise that the Constitution is revised, it is worth studying the introduction of a system in which personnel with professional expertise and experience will be recommended or appointed as upper house members without going through elections.
Discussion should also be deepened on the roles and functions required of the upper house.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 10, 2015)