Charles T. McClean is a Research Associate for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Headlines in Tokyo today are focused on who will win Japan’s next election, but very little attention is paid to how that election will be won. Few are discussing the Supreme Court of Japan’s mandate for electoral reform, reform that must happen before an election can be held. Yet the contours of that reform will decide the rules of the game for the next Lower House election.
On March 23, 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the 2009 Lower House election was unconstitutional because of population disparity. Article 14 of Japan’s constitution guarantees the right of Japanese voters to equality. The court measured equality based on the disparity in the value of individual votes, which reached as high as 2.3 to 1 between Chiba’s 4th district and Kochi’s 3rd district.
The court refrained from invalidating the historic 2009 election that brought the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to power. However, the ruling held that the court could invalidate results next time if the Diet did not undertake electoral reform to bring the disparity under a 2:1 ratio. The ruling was based on voter turnout in 2009, where the disparity exceeded the 2:1 ratio in 45 out of Japan’s 300 districts. Today, according to a new census taken in 2010, that number could easily double to as many as 97 unconstitutional districts in a future election. The coming election is the one that matters.
Japan’s last major electoral reform effort was in 1994, when the structure of the Lower House was overhauled. Japan abandoned its multi-member districts and introduced a new system with a mix of 300 single-member district (SMD) seats and 200 proportional representation (PR) seats. The PR seats were later reduced to 180.
Voter disparity is far worse in Japan’s Upper House, reaching as high as 5 to 1 in the last election in summer 2010. Former Upper House president Takeo Nishioka attempted to pursue comprehensive reform—which would have dramatically reduced the voter disparity to 1.13 to 1—but his death in November 2011 effectively brought this to a halt.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, a pair of competing reform plans have been discussed in Japan’s parliament. The main opposition party, the Liberal Democrats (LDP), put forth a plan that would just meet the court’s reform requirements. The LDP plan would cut five SMD seats in Kochi, Fukui, Yamanashi, Tokushima, and Saga prefectures and would reduce the voter disparity from 2.3 to 1.8. A new plan for the Upper House put forward after Nishioka’s death would only slightly reduce the disparity there to 4.75 to 1.
The alternative proposed by the DPJ went beyond the Supreme Court’s ruling. Building on the LDP proposal to cut five seats, the DPJ wanted to reduce PR seats from 180 to 140. The DPJ also wanted to include a provision where thirty-five PR seats could be allocated to benefit small parties in the hope that it could entice the New Komei Party (Komeito), which relied entirely on PR seats in the last election, away from the LDP. Komeito’s acquiescence would have allowed the DPJ to pass electoral reform through the opposition-controlled Upper House, and it would have hurt the LDP at the polls.
Internal party dynamics, however, got in the way. The defection from the party of fifty lawmakers in July 2012—including twelve Upper House members—meant that even in coalition with Komeito the DPJ was not going to succeed. The bill was abandoned.
A new extraordinary Diet session will convene this month. Based on the effort to date, this is what we should expect:
First, we shouldn’t expect an election anytime soon. Even if parliamentarians can come to an agreement in the first few weeks of the extraordinary session, and even if that agreement is the bare minimum suggested by the LDP, reapportioning districts takes time. Panels of experts need to decide the new demarcation lines, suggest this to the prime minister, introduce and pass a bill to amend the Public Offices Election Law, and explain the changes to the public before an election can take place (estimates suggest at least 2–3 months). And the DPJ—in power but behind in the polls—has no interest in rushing the process.
Second, debates over electoral reform will likely have little to do with conforming to the spirit of the Supreme Court decision and everything to do with party positioning to win the next election. The LDP’s “bare bones” plan and the DPJ’s “compromise” to woo Komeito suggest that neither of Japan’s two major parties is interested in seriously tackling the issue of redistricting or addressing Japan’s disenfranchised voters. It is Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s district (Chiba 4th) that has the greatest voter disparity, and yet the issue still receives less attention than it deserves. A better determinant of the path reform will take can be read from public opinion polling on the upcoming election. As long as the LDP is out-pacing the DPJ two to one in PR districts, the DPJ will be happy to do everything it can to cut PR seats, or at least drag its feet in the reform process in the hopes that its popularity improves.
Finally, electoral reform will determine the influence of new entrants into Japanese politics, namely, Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto’s Japan Renewal Party (JRP). As Sheila A. Smith points out, Japan’s coalition dynamics mean that the JRP doesn’t need to capture a majority in the next election to exert influence. Keeping the PR seats at the current number would be good for the new JRP, who wants a seat at the table in the next coalition.
Electoral reform may not seem like a priority. Yet for the Japanese public to have an equitable voice in determining their future, electoral reform must happen and it must be significant.
Unfortunately, neither of Japan’s major political parties has to date demonstrated an interest in tackling meaningful electoral reform.