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Japan Political Pulse: What's at the core of the seat-reduction issue in the lower house?

With gaffes, reading mistakes, quiz-like questioning, and redundant answers comprising much of what goes on in the National Diet Building these days, it's no wonder people think they'd be better off without such a parliament. I believe, however, that such simplistic thinking is akin to sovereign members of society -- the public -- putting their own heads in a noose.

    In proportion to population, the number of seats in Japan's House of Representatives -- 475 -- is no greater than those in the lower houses of various other countries. Rather, it's actually on the smaller side.

    If the number of such seats is reduced, the Diet's already insufficient checking function on the budget and bills could deteriorate further.

    Why, then, do major political parties today compete against each other to come up with the "best" seat-reduction plan? Because they believe that in forcing the public to accept higher consumption tax rates, political parties have to show that they, too, are ready to make "sacrifices."

    The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) have both opposed seat reductions. Meanwhile, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito have called for a reduction of 30 seats, the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) a 40- to 80-seat reduction, and the pre-split Japan Innovation Party (JIP) proposed slashing 144 seats.

    What does it mean for a lawmaker, who has been chosen by sovereign members of society, to "put oneself on the line?" Is reducing the number of lower house seats count as being frugal? I don't think that's the case.

    This issue was brought to the lower house electoral reform panel -- a private consultative body to the lower house speaker -- of which I am a member.

    My understanding is that all members of the panel, including myself, were of the view that the number of lower house seats should not be reduced, based on the Diet's current situation, international comparisons, and the historical background. This was written into the panel's recommendation.

    The most common view within the panel was to keep that viewpoint in our final recommendation, but in the end, following a debate on the weight of political parties' election platforms in a parliamentary democracy, we settled on a 10-seat reduction plan.

    While completely separate in nature from seat reductions, the issue of correcting vote value disparity is often brought up in the same breath, and is discussed as a problem arising from the ruling LDP's ego. However, if the issue is dismissed as being one of political haggling, we end up closing our eyes to essential problems with democracy.

    The value of a vote in large cities is much smaller than the value of a vote in a highly depopulated area.

    According to the Supreme Court, a vote value disparity of more than two to one violates Article 14 of the Constitution, which states that "all of the people are equal under the law." The top court has also ordered the legislature to come up with a new population-proportional method to replace the current distribution of Diet seats. The current distribution system, which gives each prefecture one seat, plus additional ones distributed proportionally -- and is the cause of growing inequality.

    The electoral reform panel considered nine calculation methods that are employed overseas to determine the number of legislative seats. What we eventually chose and recommended was the Adams method -- to which the LDP objected.

    Of the nine calculation methods that were deliberated, the Adams method works most favorably for depopulated areas. But even then, if it were to be adopted, single-seat constituencies in about a dozen prefectures would decrease, and be re-allocated to high-population areas. There's some validity to the LDP's protests in terms of constitutional interpretation.

    The interpretation that vote-value disparity, even if it is unfair, is of a different nature from racial discrimination and other forms of human rights violations, is understandable. Plus, the Diet has the discretionary power to decide on the electoral system.

    Meanwhile, however, the Supreme Court has pressed the Diet to break away from the vicious cycle of lawsuits claiming the unconstitutionality of every election, and subsequent re-zoning, and instead institute a calculation method that automatically sets the numbers.

    To say that they are "protecting rural communities" without any regard to such warnings is a mere sophism that excessively downplays urban migration.

    There have been a slew of news reports on intra-LDP confusion over the issue of lower house seat reduction, but stories on the power dynamics between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and LDP executive acting secretary-general Hiroyuki Hosoda, and the opposition parties' attacks and sardonic smiles are mere illustrations inserted to give the debate more color.

    At the core of the issue of seat reductions are interpretations of the Constitution's stipulations on equality, and how the legislature will respond to the Supreme Court's repeated warnings. (By Takao Yamada, Special Senior Writer)

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