Representation disparities have long been in an issue in Japan with increased urban migration and government that has yet to evolve with its population. In the coming months, Japan could be witnessing long-awaited reform to the electoral system; the 2016 initiative to address vote-value disparities is finally coming to fruition.
The Supreme Court has identified vote-value issues since 2009; however, recently in July of 2019, they identified that the weight of votes in less populated areas was up to three times more than those in densely populated electoral districts. The vote-value disparity in Japan stems from the electoral voting system which consists of multi-member district elections and single member district elections. The 200 multi-member district seats are allotted proportionate to population and thus elections elect multiple candidates and hence incurs intra-party competition. On the other hand, single-member district seats – which comprise the remaining 300 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives – incite inter-party competition and produce one elected candidate. The result of this system is a government that disproportionately represents less densely populated areas over densely populated areas. An effect like this inherently challenges the validity of Japan’s democracy as the public’s ability to equally participate and determine governance is undermined.
The reigning majority party – the Liberal Democratic Party or LDP lead the initial 2016 electoral revision initiative; however as time comes to make true on those promises, certain members of the LDP have been showing opposition and intent of renege. Lower house Speaker Hiroyuki Hosoda stated in November last year,
“Regional reductions and urban increases alone are not effective.”(Hiroyuki Hosoda)
Earlier this year, former LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who now represents of the Wakayama in the lower house, criticized the plan calling it, “unwanted” and “irritating.
LDP members have good reason to discourage reform, as the current inequitable electoral system upholds the long-standing power of the LDP due to its emphasis on less populated areas. But who are the LDP and why are they so powerful. The Liberal Democratic Party is Japan’s longest standing political party based in conservative political ideology. Through scandals, industrialization, modernization, decade after decade, the LDP has managed to hold on to their power with a death grip. Much of the support for the LDP comes from these areas due to their conservative-leaning platform that appeals to rural issues but there is more to this relation. In multi-member elections, because multiple candidates are elected, candidates from the same party appeal to specific constituencies in order to broaden the platform to which the party appeals as a whole and can therefore achieve majority in the district. The LDP campaign strategy for this election is clientelism. Clientelism refers to the allocation of goods or services with expectations of return in this case return means support. The LDP has developed long-standing relations with rural community members through this method of policy favors and thus maintains control over the most important voting group, and in turn, election results and the government. Despite recognition of Japan as a democracy since US occupation, autocratic forces still exist – hiding in the law.
There was some electoral system reform prior to 2019; however the reforms effectively favored LDP members by adding four more seats to help candidates in merged zones. Disguised as reform, the LDP was able to bolster their own power. Political scientist, Ozan Varol would call this “stealth authoritarianism”, a term that refers to the perpetuation of authoritative power through democratic methods. As an additional caveat, three of the four prefectures subject to the mergers registered record-low turnout. Lack of voter turnout is another issue pertinent to Japan, and poor representation would not bode well to improve this.
The new proposed reform will model data from the 2020 Census in order to reapportion the number of seats per district in and decrease the difference of vote-value to less than 2. In order to meet these goals, Japanese government would have to increase the number of seats by ten in certain urban prefectures such as Tokyo, and Aichi while simultaneously decreasing seats in rural prefectures including Yamaguchi and Miyagi. This will greatly affect the LDP as LDP incumbents hold many seats in the areas that will have seats decreased. Yamaguchi prefecture in particular is home to many prominent figures in the LDP party such as previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; decrease in representation for this area will greater impact the foundations of LDP power and their image. Additionally, without the self-maintained foundation of power, the LDP would need to target urban populations, drastically modernize their platform and hence by completely alter their campaign methods. For the first time, the great and powerful LDP would face real opposition in an electoral process they do not control. Although this initiative would not dismantle the existing electoral system itself, it could provide a more opportunity for opposition and increased voter representation which bodes well for democracy in Japan.
Although the current Prime Minister, Fumio Kushida is affiliated with the LDP, after the resignation of the previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (also LDP) who received abysmal approval due to the Covid-19 Pandemic and also the upcoming Upper House elections this year, the LDP is under considerable pressure to appease the public. That being said, the proposed election reform has real potential to alleviate some of the vote-value disparity and improve the effectiveness of Japan’s democracy.
- Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): pp. 1673-1718. Parts I, II and III.