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Streltzov Dmitry, The Electoral Reform in Japan: What is Behind the Proposals of DPJ? Печать E-mail
16.04.2012 г.
Dmitry Streltzov

By February 25, 2012, an independent expert commission chaired by the Honorary Professor of Kyoto University Michio Muramatsu, established a year earlier by a special decision of the Parliament, was expected to submit its recommendations for redrawing the boundaries of single-member constituencies. However, this did not happen. The situation where the requirements of law (the commission has been set up by a special law) had not been implemented, was rated by Government officials as "unprecedented" and "illegal".

The main reason for the establishment of the commission lies in the results of the 2010 census, according to which the weight of vote in 97 of the 300 existing single-member constituencies is more than two times lower than in the least populous constituency No. 3 of Kochi Prefecture.

The issue of disparity of votes comprised a big problem for Japan in the whole post-war period. Such a disparity arouses doubts over the validity of the basic democratic principle, e.g. each voter shall have one vote, and all votes shall be equal.

During the 1994 electoral reform, the boundaries of three hundred single-member constituencies were due to be drawn in a way as to have an approximately equal number of electors in each constituency. However, the mechanism for setting the boundaries was initially defective: each prefecture, regardless of its population, was apportioned one "default" constituency, and only after those new constituencies were established proportionally to the number of residing voters. Another factor of injustice was the principle of drawing boundaries of consistencies in line with the existing administrative borders between cities and towns with absolutely different population densities. As a result, the emergence of a considerable vote disparity became inevitable.

The disparity problem has been aggravated by the demographic processes involving urbanization and migration of population to the developed Pacific coast. Another factor was the process of merging of municipalities in 2000s. In 2002 the government changed the boundaries of constituencies, tailoring them to the new territorial-administrative contours.

In March 2011, i.e. after the Muramatsu commission had already started its work, the Supreme Court of Japan announced that the situation when the disparity of votes exceeded the twofold mark is contrary to the Constitution. The Court recognized that the 2009 elections to the Lower House had been held in violation of the Constitution, as the maximum difference in the weight of votes amounted to 2.3. Though the electoral results were not been nullified, the verdict asserted the need for drastic amendment to the Law for Elected Public Officials and for streamlining the electoral system in accordance with the Constitution.

In these circumstances, the authority of the Muramatsu Commission whose main purpose was not to change the electoral system, but to the redraw the boundaries, was not sufficient for fulfilling the verdict of the Court, and its work was suspended. In October 2011, an inter-party commission representing all parliamentary factions was established to find a comprehensive solution to the question, should the current electoral system be changed, and if so, in what direction. The commission was due to find a proper balance between the necessity to reflect "public will" (i.e. to obtain the widest possible palette of political forces in the Diet), and to ensure “the choice of power” (i.e. to guarantee a workable parliamentary majority sufficient to pass the Government bills through the Diet). The urgency of issues standing on the agenda of the commission was added by the possibility for new elections to the House of Representatives following its early dissolution by the Prime-Minister. Recognition of the elections results by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional denying the legitimacy of status of the newly elected members of the Lower House could trigger a severe political crisis.

The work of the inter-party commission revealed several irreconcilable contradictions between the positions of main political parties that had failed to elaborate a compromise. The LDP, in particular, insisted that the reform should be limited to demolition of five single-member constituencies in the least populated prefectures like Yamanashi, Kochi, Saga etc. On the other side, the New Komeito promoted an idea of substantial increasing of the proportional representation quota in the Lower House, enabling small and medium-sized parties to strengthen their position in the Diet.

On February 15, 2012 the chairman of the inter-party commission, representative of the DPJ Shinji Tarutoko introduced his “private” project of reform, based on the position of the Democratic Party. It provided for the demolition of five single-member constituencies, as well as for the partial introduction of a combined mix electoral system and the reduction of the proportional block of seats from 180 to 100. Mr. Tarutoko has also proposed the creation of an expert council that would formulate its recommendations on electoral reform within one year after the next elections to the Lower House.

Facing the necessity of pushing the confrontational consumer tax bill through the Diet, Democrats tried to reconcile the two approaches - that of LDP and that of Komeito, with the result of finding a sort of an averaging option. In addition, some experts assess the DPJ project as a desire to show people the willingness of politicians to reduce their numerical representation in anticipation of imminent tightening of tax burden. According to the newspaper Yomiuri, ‘this is because the DPJ thought it imperative for politicians to make a sacrifice because of the burden the public faces through hikes in the consumption tax rate to realize the government-envisioned comprehensive reform of the social security and tax systems’ [1].

The project of Democrats, according to experts, leads to strengthening of parliamentary representation of "small parties", whereas for the two major parties it would become much more difficult to sustain a stable majority in the Lower House. For example, according to the newspaper Yomiuri, if the 2009 Lower house election were held under the Tarutoko proposal, Komeito would win more than thirty seats in the blocs while the DPJ would gain just three seats [2].

This fact deserves a special attention in view of the dynamic conduct on the side of small but promising political parties, such as Your Party or the regional party "Ishin-no Kai", created by the Mayor of Osaka Toru Hashimoto. In the upcoming elections these parties are expected to attract a significant segment of votes, disillusioned by both the DPJ administration and the opposing LDP, which has not yet succeeded in putting forward a positive reform agenda. However, excessive representation of marginal political forces in the Diet would cause confusion and complicate the formation of a working parliamentary majority. The paralysis of the legislative process, associated with the lack of such a majority, can be seen in the current "twisted" status of Diet, the prevention of which is undoubtedly one of the important tasks of the electoral reform.

The DPJ project has not been fully accepted by any of the opposing parties. As a result it was decided to continue inter-party consultations at the working level even after the expiration of the allotted time limit. In these circumstances, the LDP proposals seem to be the most realistic in the short term. However, the DPJ Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi told reporters that the DPJ would seek a way to formalizing its proposals as a Government Bill and holding it through the Parliament without an inter-party agreement [3].

Dmitry Streltzov, PhD (History) is a Professor of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. This article was written especially for New Eastern Outlook.

1. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 24, 2012.
2. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 16, 2012.
3. Asahi Shimbun February 22, 2012.


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