A bolder approach to electoral reform?

Discussion of electoral reform was not something I expected to see just a few weeks after a devastating earthquake and tsunami, and in the midst of a nuclear incident. However the Japanese Supreme Court has handed down an interesting and challenging decision which will further complicate matters for opponents of electoral reform in Japan (jp).

The DPJ, having only, somewhat inexplicably, meekly pursued electoral reform up until this point has been effectively forced to change tack again. Now they are looking at the big prize – the House of Representatives.

Until now most of the focus was on reforming the upper house/House of Councillors – certainly the more unfair of the two institutions with a “vote disparity”「1票格差」of 5 to 1 in some places (ie how many votes it takes to send an MP to the HoC in one place versus another). A variety of complicated proposals were ventured, including one that would turn whole regional areas into multi-member electoral districts. In recent years there have been more and more court decisions stating that vote disparities had brought the electoral system into a “state of unconstitutionality.” No elections were overturned but one had to wonder how long this could be put up with without making a mockery of Japan’s political system and the operational significance of having a system built on a separation of powers.

Now there is a “legal” need to look at the House of Representatives. The manner in which it is  elected has also been ruled to not be entirely constitutional in the past, although not as often as the House of Councillors. Already there was a process in place for re-districting the House of Representatives based on the recent census. As required by law after every census a commission of inquiry is set up to look at ways that the vote disparity between the two most extreme districts can be brought back under 2:1. They then report back, this time it was due to be February 2012, to the Japanese Prime Minister on their recommendations for demarcating single-member electoral districts. This commission had already reported based on preliminary census results that to do this 4 prefectures would have to receive additional seats while 4 districts would have to lose one. A full-sitting of the Supreme Court however on the 23rd March recommended that the current 2.3:1 ratio should be rectified as soon as possible – but not by simple redistricting.

The DPJ has released a new proposal that would do two things in addressing the above decision – and it looks to be taking the courts seriously this time.

1) It would abandon the special method of apportioning seats [1人別枠方式] that was introduced in 1994, which takes the 300 single member districts and distributes one seat to every prefecture in Japan as the starting point. This leaves 253 seats remaining which are then allotted to each district on the basis of their population. In the most recent Japanese Supreme Court decision this particular method of apportioning seats came in for special criticism. Essentially, distributing all 300 single member district seats on the basis of population is the fairest outcome based on the Supreme Court’s ruling. Every prefecture would still have at least 1 seat – with Tottori being the only prefecture to have only a single seat. 10 prefectures would gain 21 seats while 21 prefectures would lose a single seat. No one loses more than 1, according to Jiji’s calculations (jp). Notable is that Saitama, Chiba, Tokyo and Kanagawa, gain 13 seats between them. Breakdown is at the end of the post.

2) The DPJ, in line with their manifesto would also seek to look at the proportional representation system in the House of Representatives and reduce the number of PR seats from 180 to 100. According to previous statements by party members, this is for the purposes of not just saving money but for the purposes of supporting more coherent policy divisions, or ideological choice, by enabling a two party system to take hold – or at least increase the chances of it doing so. Essentially it would reduce the strength of parties who rely exclusively on the PR system for their representation in the House of Representatives. PR seats would in this set up make up 25% of all seats in the House of Representatives, rather than the 37.5% that they do now.

The implications, and thus the likely discontents will be obvious here – regional voices will lose some of their strength in a House of Representatives elected in this way. Of course, some may say they will only be reduced to an equal voice and thus there is no basis for complaining; notwithstanding concerns about the ‘tyranny of the majority’ scholars of US political history will be familiar with.

Perhaps a better way to frame this however, as I am now probably at risk of belabouring, is in the synergy between the houses by way of differentiating the functions of the two houses more clearly. The House of Councillors, while likely to undergo some reform given the 5 to 1 ratio is bordering on scandalous, will still likely disproportionately advantage rural and regional interests to a degree where these interests could become a check on power, and thus on some expressions of the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ If the vote disparity can be reduced to something along the lines of the 2,3:1 range then that may be acceptable if absolute equality is guaranteed in the House of Representatives. Which after all is probably where absolute equality should be observed given the additional, “last resort” powers that the HoR holds (ie 2/3rds majority override and the automatic passing of the budget in cases of conflict between the two houses). PR parties would still likely be well represented in a HoC that is elected through large multi-member districts. And they would not cease to function in the HoR either.

Of course this says nothing about whether this is likely to pass despite the Supreme Court’s criticism of the current system. They can probably count out support from the SDP, JCP, PNP etc. The LDP’s increasingly rural profile will also at this point in time make it cautious towards such a plan, even if in the long-term it advantages big parties. Komeito & Your Party as medium-sized third parties seem more open to the idea at this point in time. And of course there will be plenty of discontents in the DPJ itself.

There may have to be some concessions in terms of the delegation of certain functions and powers to regional municipalities to attract support for the plan- something strongly recommended to Kan by Igarashi Takayoshi, one of his cabinet advisers, in the wake of recent events. In fact, this sort of compromise would likely achieve the best of both worlds – central government would not be able to interfere so often with process-related policy making and delivery in the regions, that creates so much tension. On the other hand regional concerns and interests would not “interfere” as violently with the long-term strategic policymaking that central government and political administrations are ideally supposed to engage in, and that Japan needs more than ever in the wake of recent tragedies. Nevertheless, the Japanese Supreme Court has handed the DPJ a difficult one – full scale reform as suggested by the Supreme Court will require that the Tohoku region be further emaciated at the national level  given that depopulation was already in full swing in the area even prior to the triple disaster.

都道府県 現行定数  試算結果  増減
北海道    12    13  +1
青森県     4     3  -1
岩手県     4     3  -1
宮城県     6     5  -1
秋田県     3     2  -1
山形県     3     3   0
福島県     5     5   0
茨城県     7     7   0
栃木県     5     5   0
群馬県     5     5   0
埼玉県    15    17  +2
千葉県    13    15  +2
東京都    25    31  +6
神奈川県   18    21  +3
新潟県     6     6   0
富山県     3     3   0
石川県     3     3   0
福井県     3     2  -1
山梨県     3     2  -1
長野県     5     5   0
岐阜県     5     5   0
静岡県     8     9  +1
愛知県    15    17  +2
三重県     5     4  -1
滋賀県     4     3  -1
京都府     6     6   0
大阪府    19    21  +2
兵庫県    12    13  +1
奈良県     4     3  -1
和歌山県    3     2  -1
鳥取県     2     1  -1
島根県     2     2   0
岡山県     5     5   0
広島県     7     7   0
山口県     4     3  -1
徳島県     3     2  -1
香川県     3     2  -1
愛媛県     4     3  -1
高知県     3     2  -1
福岡県    11    12  +1
佐賀県     3     2  -1
長崎県     4     3  -1
熊本県     5     4  -1
大分県     3     3   0
宮崎県     3     3   0
鹿児島県    5     4  -1
沖縄県     4     3  -1

6 thoughts on “A bolder approach to electoral reform?

  1. A savvy politician might be able to play out those two aspects against each other: Promise to give the electoral reformists – largely from large cities – what they want in exchange for agreeing to greater local autonomy; and give those clamouring for autonomy – mostly but not only rural and regional areas – what they want in exchange for electoral reform. Everybody is happy, everybody wins. Except the bureaucracy, who would lose influence and are against both.

    All we need now is an actual savvy politician.

      • “Ignoring the Supreme Court for too long surely is not a good thing.”

        Well, is it bad, though? What really happens if the ruling and opposition parties can’t agree, and the status quo just continues indefinitely?

        Does the supreme court really have the authority to draft and impose a new election law and redistricting over the heads of both houses? If not then what – have diet members arrested for refusing to vote in favour of a new election law?

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