The Intractable Issue of Electoral Reform Debate


Japan today has a wide disparity between the value of votes in crowded urban districts and sparsely populated rural ones, all of which have the same Diet representation. Reforms to rectify this situation are currently on the back burner. In March 2011 the Supreme Court ruled that the August 2009 House of Representatives election had seen an unconstitutional gap between the most and least populous constituencies; more than a year later, though, nothing has been done in response to this ruling. A governmental council tasked with redistricting based on national census data was required by law to submit its reapportionment plan to the prime minister no later than February 25, but the deadline passed with this job incomplete.

Why has this needed reform not taken place? One answer lies in the political wrangling—which today involves all the parties—over fundamental overhaul to the electoral system. Even if politicians do make moves to address the vote-value discrepancy between urban and rural districts, the behind-the-scenes struggles over this deeper reform will continue to function as an intractable issue dogging the political process.

The Endless Struggle over Electoral Reform

The 480 members of the House of Representatives can be split into two categories. The first is single-seat constituencies, where 300 representatives are chosen in direct votes. The second is proportional representation districts, where 180 members gain their seats through votes cast for their parties. It was the single-seat districts that were the focus of the March 2011 Supreme Court decision after the 2009 lower house contest saw votes in some rural districts carrying 2.3 times as much weight as votes in the nation’s most populous districts. The court decision recommended doing away with the system wherein each prefecture is automatically allocated one seat regardless of population, a concrete step that pressed the legislative branch to take swift action in response.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party, which leads the opposition, have agreed on a plan to take away one single-seat district from each of five prefectures. Despite their accord, though, this correction has yet to take place. No matter how swiftly they move to implement this limited blueprint now, it will be no earlier than the end of this year that an election can take place under the revised district layout.

The situation is all the more complex due to the more fundamental reforms that Japan needs to carry out to the electoral system itself. The New Kōmeitō, which wields some influence over both the DPJ and LDP, is pushing for implementation of more sweeping reforms through the introduction of a mixed-member proportional representation system that blends elements of the single-seat and proportional-representation voting processes.

In this proposed mixed-member system, a party that wins more single-seat districts will see its chances of taking additional seats in the proportional representation blocs go down. This makes it favorable to the interests of the smaller parties, which depend heavily on these blocs for their Diet seats. The ruling DPJ has been relatively low-key in promoting the five-seat reduction plan in part to avoid antagonizing the Kōmeitō, whose active opposition would cause problems for the Democrats in Diet deliberations on tough subjects like a hike in the consumption tax rate. The DPJ appears to be leaving itself room to come closer to the Kōmeitō position on mixed-member proportional representation.

It must be said, though, that the chances are slim for laying the tracks toward implementation of this new system during the present session of the Diet. The two largest parties, the ruling DPJ and opposition LDP, both have many members who take a very cautious approach toward any system more favorable to the smaller parties’ demands while maintaining the current single-seat district framework.

A prime example of this approach comes from the politicians in favor of revamping the single-seat district system itself with the restoration of the multiseat constituencies that once sent three to five members to the lower house before they vanished in the electoral reforms of 1994. On February 23 a parliamentary group organized by two veteran politicians, the DPJ’s Watanabe Kōzō and Katō Kōichi of the LDP, agreed on the goal of bringing multiseat districts back in the next general election. With a total membership of some 150 people, including more than 90 lower house members and high-profile former prime ministers like Mori Yoshirō and Asō Tarō, this group bears watching.

The 1994 reforms to the House of Representatives electoral system did away with the multiseat constituencies, replacing them with single-seat districts beginning in the 1996 general election. These changes were carried out in the name of severing the unseemly ties between money and politics; they were the subject of a fierce battle in the political arena of the time, with both the LDP and the opposition Social Democratic Party of Japan home to factions involved in an internecine struggle over the reforms. In the light of this history, the debate we see today over single-seat districts appears to be part of an endless struggle.

Prospects for Future Change

Under its system of single-seat districts, Japan is mired in the politics of indecision and the political scene has seen no end to its money scandals. Now the hope that a change could breathe fresh vigor into substantial policy debate is driving moves toward bringing back the multiseat districts. Kōmeitō is not fundamentally opposed to these districts. Indeed, one shrewd prediction is that if the DPJ and LDP choose one day to move toward a grand coalition, these districts could provide sufficient room for both parties to field candidates without fear of clashing with an ally.

At the same time, though, a number of Diet members are in favor of doing away with proportional representation and basing the electoral system entirely on single-seat districts, moving Japan still farther along the road toward politics built around two main parties. From their perspective, any measures like the proposed mixed-member system that ensure lasting support for the smaller parties are steps backward.

And finally, it goes without saying that the positions staked out by individual Diet members are tied closely to the various situations they face in their own districts. We need to be aware that the problem of how to reform Japan’s election system plays a far larger role in shaping politics than its presence in the popular consciousness would suggest. (March 6, 2012)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

politics Diet election reform DPJ LDP decentralization Hitora Tadashi Devolution electoral districts single seat proportional representation multiseat Komeito