There has been one issue where the lack of political killer instinct of the DPJ (and to a lesser degree other parties such as Komeito and Your Party that won seats in the larger multi-member constituencies in the recent Upper House election) has been quite puzzling. On a number of occasions various Japanese courts have ruled that the 一票の格差 (ippyou no kakusa) – the relative difference between one constituency and another in terms of the number of votes it takes to elect one candidate to the House of Councillors and/or Representatives – in Japanese elections has been unconstitutional. While no change should be expected under the LDP government which had generally benefited from rural votes essentially being worth more than urban votes, it was curious that the DPJ at least did not set the ball rolling on such reform sometime earlier than now on this issue, perhaps by setting up a parliamentary commission to look at the issue. After all, it is unconstitutional for one and any changes likely benefit the DPJ for another. It is worth considering that electoral changes in the other interlude between LDP regimes (1993-94) are often cited as being crucial for the DPJ becoming the major party after the 2009 elections, even if 15 years delayed.
Nevertheless, the government has finally got around to looking at the issue at least for the Upper House – perhaps a recent statement from the Tokyo High Court, in ruling on the ippyou no kakusa’s unconstitutionality, that tinkering with the system was not going to cut it anymore, was useful here. The Asahi reports (ja) that the DPJ is going to propose a plan to be considered next spring that attempts to equalize the vote discrepancy throughout the country by ensuring no one area has an ippyou no kakusa of more than 1.2. They will do this by setting up 11 multi-member constituency blocks spanning the country(image here Japanese but pretty straightforward), with the intention that such as system be put in place by the 2013 election. There will be no requirement for each prefecture to be represented by at least one member of parliament at every election and proportional representation will be abolished. This will also be accompanied by a reduction of seats from 242 to 200.1
This is a similar plan to one that I discussed in an earlier post as put forward by Takenaka Harukata. Takenaka, in considering how to make the Upper House more democratic, also very sensibly focused on the “functions”of the respective houses in terms of how they fit within the policy making process (rather than being obsessed with the “numbers” of MPs as some Japanese politicians have been). Suggesting that the Upper House had become no more than a disruptive clone of the Lower House, he suggested that the Upper House should provide for a more pluralistic politics, rather than being a site for the continuation of partisan conflicts. In terms of its relationship with the Lower House, the Upper House should be a more independent/deliberative, rather than political party-centred check on the Lower House. This increasing partisanship is, according to Takenaka, a reasonably recent development and has somewhat undermined the function and value of a separate Upper House.
The new proposal is not completely dissimilar to the thinking behind the US HoR and Senate, although the roles somewhat reversed in terms of how the Houses are elected. Idealistic as the above expectation may be, I think it serves as a pretty useful principle – institutional design is not the be all and end all of fostering a desired political/democratic culture, but it certainly is a major component. Such a change has great potential to provide different (and importantly, more democratic) incentives for political actors to embrace certain policies and engage in a different style of politics.
Needless to say, despite the greater constitutional appropriateness of such a system, it will not come about so easily and there may need to be some pragmatic compromises. Parties such as the Communist Party and the Socialist Party
will may find it more difficult to even maintain their current low numbers, given that they have been more or less PR only parties for sometime. (edited: Actually on rethinking this these PR parties may do well, although it depends on how many seats are up for election in each bloc – the larger the bloc the better it seems for parties like the communists and socialists who sometimes only garner a few percent, which would be enough in the larger blocs. Parties with more support on the PR such as Komeito and YP might do quite well)
Komeito also generally benefits from the PR system,
although is and also picks up a lot of urban support. Your Party also benefited from PR at the last Upper House election, although and Your Party in particular might want to take a bet on an expanded multi-member district system which gives more strength to urban voters. While the Communist and Socialist parties are unlikely to agree to the proposal no matter what, That said, the DPJ will have a hard time convincing some of its own members to get behind the plan – a fair number will effectively see their seats abolished and the specific local concerns of their constituents being given less consideration in Upper House election campaigns at least (Although if the latest Upper House election is anything to go by, from a purely self-serving point of view, these DPJ members may lose their seats anyhow).
Such a system may open up opportunities for new parties to form where older parties (including the bigger ones) might stumble in this new system- as suggested Your Party for example could be a beneficiary from such a proposal. The proposed system is not at all inherently contrary to the interests of small parties and could be quite profitable for up-and-coming small-medium size parties. Up until now Upper House elections, given the PR/local constituent split in seats, tended to be run on very broad but non-specific national issues, or on very specific local issues (although also often served as referenda on the ruling government). This might sound good in theory, but in reality it appears to me at least that it allows/incentivizes politicians to avoid the bigger pressing issues and focus on local issues. Local issues are of course important, but one could reasonably ask why have two parliamentary houses emphasizing such concerns. The proposal would seem to transform Upper House elections to being more about regional (as opposed to “local”) and national issues, which could allow for more compromise and a more deliberative, less partisan approach being taken in the Upper House.
One of the “negative” outcomes of such a system would be more minority/divided governments as a major party would struggle without quite substantial support to achieve a Upper House majority. Then again, given the state of Japanese politics right now (where a tired and out of ideas LDP cannot pick up support from voters deserting the DPJ), and the likelihood of there being no majority in either house if an election was held right now, this may not be such a downside. It would certainly compel parties to consider their long-term strategies to managing the legislative process – mainly because parties themselves would have less control over their members in such a system, similar to how Senators in the US have traditionally been seen to be less partisan and more independent of their parties (although, not necessarily more “reasonable,” to be sure).
Nevertheless, “because it is unconstitutional” should be a worthwhile response to the above concerns in a country seemingly committed to democracy and constitutional government. Certainly if the current incarnation of the LDP were to somehow climb back into power without any alterations to the way politicians are elected then it does not bode well for reform and evolution in the Japanese political system – however badly one perceives the DPJ to be managing the government, it is less than clear that any other party interested in reform of any kind would be all that successful in the current political environment. Certainly parties like Your Party, and any party focused on regional issues that might pop in the next year or two, who represent Japanese constituencies with some reasonable things to say, could well find themselves slowly withering away without any long-term institutional insurance through the electoral system.
1 I think there surely must be more detail to be worked out. According to the proposal, the Kinki bloc will have 32 members being elected, with 5 other blocs have 20 or more members. Upper House elections are three years apart so in these blocs 10 to 16 members will be elected each time. If they are treated as one large electoral bloc then assuming the most popular 2 or 3 candidates get a significant proportion of the vote, then other candidates might only have to get a few percent to get elected. This seems very low to me (even if a few percent of a lot of people is, well, a lot) – the 11 bloc system would make more sense I feel (in terms of the logic I outlined in this post) if the number of parliamentarians was reduced to 100 (politically impossible I am sure), or, the blocs were smaller. Or some combination of reduced membership and slightly smaller blocs.