An advisory panel to the speaker of the House of Representatives has proposed a plan to substantially reduce the disparity in the value of one vote between the most densely populated constituency and the least populated electoral district in the chamber.
Under the proposal, the number of constituencies in densely populated urban areas would be increased by seven while that in sparsely populated electoral districts would be slashed by 13. Moreover, the number of seats allocated to proportional representation blocs would be increased in urban areas by one and that in less populated rural areas would be decreased by five. The measure would cut the total number of seats in the lower chamber by 10.
The recommendation is appropriate in that it would meet the urgent need to rectify the vote value disparity while maintaining the electoral system combining single-seat constituencies and proportional representation blocs.
However, it remains to be seen whether the proposal will lead to an early agreement between the ruling and opposition parties on a measure to reduce the vote value disparity to a level that can be deemed constitutional. In particular, members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that has an overwhelming majority in the powerful lower house are beginning to voice opposition to the panel's proposal. This is despite the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who leads the LDP, has repeatedly declared that the recommendation should be respected.
The proposal would increase the number of single-seat constituencies by seven in Tokyo and four other prefectures while slashing the number by one each in 13 prefectures. In response to changes in populations in various regions, the demarcation of constituencies in each prefecture would be reviewed every five years. The LDP would be most severely affected by electoral system changes and struggle to shift some of its legislators from one district to another in lower chamber elections. However, voicing opposition to the proposal simply because many of its legislators would be affected is unjustifiable.
One way to narrow the vote value disparity is to increase the number of seats allocated to urban areas while maintaining the number of seats in rural areas at the current level, which would increase the total number of seats in the chamber. However, such a plan does not appear to convince the general public, which is critical of the current situation of the legislators However, if the number of seats only in proportional representation blocs were to be slashed as the LDP insists, it would raise concerns that minority opinions would not be sufficiently reflected in politics.
The latest proposal is based on an agreement reached in autumn 2012 between the LDP-Komeito alliance and the then ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to reduce the number of seats in the lower chamber on the grounds that legislators must be prepared to sacrifice themselves since they would ask the public to accept a consumption tax increase. Nevertheless, ruling and opposition parties failed to agree on a specific plan on electoral system reform because of conflicts of interest between various parties, and ended up referring the issue to the third-party panel. The LDP should not forget this process or go back to the drawing board.
The Supreme Court has ruled that the vote value disparity in the lower house election in December 2014 was "in a state of unconstitutionality," a situation that cannot be immediately deemed unconstitutional but could be recognized as such unless the gap is reduced to a rational level within a rational timeframe. The LDP's lack of enthusiasm about carrying through electoral reform has raised questions as to how seriously the party is taking the top court ruling.
There are speculations in the political world that Prime Minister Abe may dissolve the lower house to call a general election simultaneously with a House of Councillors election this coming summer. However, new demarcations of constituencies need to be implemented after a certain period when voters are thoroughly notified of the new districts. Therefore, if a double election were to be held this coming summer along with the upper house election, measures to rectify vote value disparity would unlikely be implemented in time for the poll. Voices within the LDP hoping for a double election apparently reflect views prevalent in the party that it would all right to postpone rectification of the vote value disparity.
Lower house Speaker Tadamori Oshima urged all political parties to draw a conclusion on measures to reduce the vote value disparity during the ongoing regular Diet session. Prime Minister Abe should take the initiative in coordinating views between ruling and opposition parties to reach an early agreement on the issue.