The issue of fundamental reform of Diet electoral systems was carried over to this year after many courts handed down rulings in 2013 highly critical of disparities of vote values in elections of both the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors.
Though political parties have been debating the issue, their opinions remain widely divided.
Little time remains for the parties to act on this issue because Diet action, such as revising related laws, must be completed before the next lower house or upper house election is held.
The situation is more urgent in the upper house. A November 2012 revision of the Public Offices Election Law that added a total of four seats in some prefectural electoral districts while cutting the same number of seats in others postponed the fundamental reform of the system.
Instead, a supplementary provision to the law states, “A conclusion over fundamental reform shall be made” before the next upper house election is held in summer 2016.
A Supreme Court ruling in 2012 also demanded the Diet reexamine the allocation of upper house seats for each of the prefectural electoral districts.
Parliamentary groups in the upper house formed a council on electoral system reforms, which is chaired by Masashi Waki, the Liberal Democratic Party’s secretary general in the upper house caucus.
Waki said, “We seriously take the laws and court rulings to heart, and will promote debates in our council.”
The upper house panel is now hearing opinions from experts and plans to finish the process by around April. It aims to start full-fledged debates between the ruling and opposition parties after Waki presents his personal proposal before or after the Golden Week holidays in May.
Considering the time necessary to explain the reforms to the public, the ruling and opposition camps will need to agree over a reform plan by the end of 2014, and related bills will have to pass in an ordinary Diet session in 2015 at the latest.
The political parties share the view that unless the actions are completed by the deadlines, it will be impossible to implement the reforms before the next upper house election in 2016.
Debates on reforming the upper house’s electoral systems were conducted in 2006 and 2012 but conclusions were postponed on both the occasions.
Thus it is uncertain whether the ruling and opposition camps, still widely divided on the issue, will be able to reach an agreement in time.
New Komeito insists on dividing the nation into 11 blocs of multiple-seat electoral districts. Your Party and the Japanese Communist Party demand upper house elections be held using only a proportional representation system.
Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) insists that the lower and upper houses merge into a single chamber, which would require amending the Constitution.
The LDP has not presented a practical plan of its own. The Democratic Party of Japan has only presented a demand that the total number of upper house seats be cut by about 40 from the current 242.
Waki expressed reservations about converting electoral districts into blocs or choosing proportional representation alone, saying: “If all upper house elections are held under the proportional representation system, prefectures with small populations would go without representation.”
Some members of the upper house council are also critical of overemphasizing the equal value of ballots.
The lower house also must coordinate opinions quickly in order to implement its electoral system reform before the next lower house election is held.
The LDP, Komeito and the DPJ are scheduled to resume working-level negotiations on electoral reform when this year’s ordinary Diet session begins.
LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba said at a recent press conference, “As we ask the public to shoulder burdens after the consumption tax rate is raised, we must make efforts to streamline ourselves. The implementation of the consumption tax hike will be a benchmark.”
Ishiba emphasized his intention to compile a plan to cut the number of lower house seats at the same time that the consumption tax rate is raised from 5 percent to 8 percent in April.
In November last year, the LDP, Komeito and the DPJ agreed to reduce the lower house seats while maintaining the framework of the current electoral system, which combines single-seat constituencies and proportional representation.
But many in the LDP and Komeito are reluctant to implement fundamental reform in the near future. Ishin no Kai shares the view that the current framework of the electoral system should be maintained.