The Sloppy and Unconstitutional Revision of the Public Offices Election Law

Katayama Yoshihiro [Profile]

[2015.10.14] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 |

The Diet recently revised the Public Offices Election Law to reduce the vote disparity in upper house districts, merging two pairs of prefectures into single districts. Katayama Yoshihiro, former governor of Tottori, one of the affected prefectures, calls the revision rough and heavy-handed and suggests that it may be unconstitutional.

Rushed Through the Diet in Four Days

On July 28 this year, a bill revising the Public Offices Election Law was approved by the House of Representatives and became law. The revision was originally submitted to the House of Councillors on July 23; excluding Saturday and Sunday, the two houses of the National Diet thus took a mere four days to enact the legislation.

Up to now, each of Japan’s 47 prefectures has been a regional electoral constituency for the House of Councillors. But under the revised law, two pairs of prefectures were merged: Shimane and Tottori in western Honshū became a single regional district, and so did Kōchi and Tokushima on the island of Shikoku. (These are the four least populous prefectures; the mergers were part of a reapportionment plan to reduce the vote disparity among the upper house constituencies.)

The House of Councillors is one of the two chambers of the Diet, which the Constitution defines as “the highest organ of state power” (Article 41). Its members represent not merely their particular districts but the people of the nation as a whole. Legislation revising the electoral system for these representatives of the people was enacted in great haste without serious deliberation. The handling of this revision was altogether too rough and heavy-handed.

Local Concerns Ignored

Article 51 of the Diet Law includes this provision: “A Committee may hold open hearings on important matters of popular concern and for general purposes, and may hear views from the interested parties or people of learning and experience.” And it has been customary to hold such hearings when considering matters of weight concerning national government. I believe that the deliberations on the revision of the upper house electoral system under the Public Elections Law ought to have been accompanied by hearings not just within the Diet but also in the prefectures affected by the change. But no such effort was made to listen to the opinions of local citizens.

Naturally, many people in the affected prefectures are uneasy about the change. The loss of a representative elected from their own prefecture may mean that their earnest appeals will go unheard, and they could end up being ignored by the national government. I asked a legislator I know in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party about these concerns. He reported that the party had listened to opinions from the prefectures in question; initially there was some strong dissatisfaction, but the party was able to gain general approval for the change by explaining the matter carefully and presenting the outlook for relief measures. So it was all right, he said.

LDP: Eager Only to Protect Its Own Members’ Jobs

But the “careful explanation” to which my acquaintance referred was delivered mainly to local assembly members belonging to the LDP, not to ordinary voters. And the relief measures that the party presented apparently were no more than provisions for the sake of current Diet members. The details have not been revealed, but they are said to involve consideration for national legislators who will lose their present seats as a result of the mergers, probably by switching them to the LDP’s list of proportional-representation candidates (in addition to 146 members elected from regional [prefectural] districts, the upper house has 96 members elected nationwide by proportional representation). So the “relief” is no more than protection of the Diet members’ jobs. This may satisfy the legislators from the affected prefectures, but it can hardly clear away the concerns of local residents.

According to media reports, the LDP is going to consider an arrangement that will guarantee seats for the legislators shifted to the proportional-representation list. Simply adding them to the list of candidates is not enough to assure they will get seats. Under the current electoral system for the upper house, the proportional-representation seats are filled using an “open list” system, under which the parties cannot set the order of the candidates on the list in advance. Voters can cast their ballots for individual candidates, and seats are assigned to those who win the most votes. This system reportedly could be modified to allow each party to specify the top five candidates in its list. It is apparent that the political establishment cares little about the concerns of local residents and is devoting its attention to the protection of its own members’ jobs.

  • [2015.10.14]

Professor, Faculty of Law, Keiō University, specializing in local government and regional public finance. Born in Okayama Prefecture, 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Law, University of Tokyo. Joined the Ministry of Home Affairs (now the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications) in 1974. Resigned in 1998 and was elected governor of Tottori Prefecture in 1999. Served in this post for two four-year terms. Minister of internal affairs and communications in the cabinet of Kan Naoto (Democratic Party of Japan) 2010–11.

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