Upper house reform council must discuss chamber’s role, authority

A series of stopgap measures should not be implemented solely for rectifying vote-value disparities. It is hoped that substantial discussions will also be deepened on how the House of Councillors should function in the two-chamber system.

A decision has been made to launch a council on upper house reform comprising representatives of the chamber’s parliamentary groups. The crux of the reform will be how to revamp the electoral system.

In November last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the 2019 upper house election in which the maximum vote-value disparity was 3-to-1 was constitutional. At the same time, the top court criticized efforts to further correct the disparities, saying, “It cannot be said that significant progress has been made.”

The disparities narrowed because a system that allows constituencies in neighboring prefectures to be integrated into one was introduced in 2016. However, only four prefectures were subject to this rezoning, resulting in notable adverse effects, such as a decline in voter turnout. Drastic reform is needed.

The next upper house election is scheduled for next summer, but the council has not even held its first meeting yet. The ruling and opposition parties have been too slow in dealing with upper house reform, delayed partly by faults of the ruling coalition, such as errors in provisions of the Public Offices Election Law.

In the 2019 upper house election, a special quota was created for candidates who could not run due to the introduction of merged constituencies, by allowing them to preferentially win seats in the proportional representation segment. As a result of such a temporary measure, this issue has become more complicated.

Twenty-five years have passed since the single-seat constituency system was introduced for the House of Representatives election. It is also difficult for the public to understand why a lower house race, which is an election to choose a government, and an upper house race, which is not directly linked to the nomination of a prime minister, both adopt an electoral system that combines constituencies and proportional representation.

First, the council is urged to discuss a concrete picture of a desirable two-chamber system and envision a suitable electoral system.

When the Diet chambers are controlled by different parties, the excessively powerful upper house is regarded as a problem, while the upper house is criticized as being a rubber stamp when the ruling party has a majority in both chambers. This situation must be changed.

The upper house’s original role is evidently to rein in and complement the lower house, which has the upper hand in appointing the prime minister among other matters, by consolidating public opinion. It is hoped that voters will choose upper house members who can take actions based on a long-term perspective and deliver to national politics diverse views that are difficult to have reflected in lower house elections.

The Liberal Democratic Party has proposed amending the Constitution to allow at least one candidate to be elected from each prefecture in every upper house election in order to dissolve the merged constituencies.

From next year, the Adams’ method will be introduced for lower house elections to better allocate seat quotas in accordance with the population ratio. It is worth considering strengthening the role of upper house members as regional representatives, to reflect in politics the voices of people in regional areas where populations have been declining at an accelerated pace.

In that case, the upper house’s authority, such as over enacting a law, should be reduced. By distancing itself from partisan confrontation, the upper house will likely be able to conduct deliberations suitable for a “chamber of wisdom.”

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 24, 2021.