Japan

Upper house panel passes controversial election reform bill

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Japan's upper house approved Wednesday a controversial election reform bill put on the table by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party, which would increase the number of upper chamber seats by six ostensibly to reduce disparities in the weight of votes.

The bill, to be discussed in the lower house, has been strongly criticized by opposition parties as going against the streamlining efforts over the past few decades to cut down the number of lawmakers in the country whose population is rapidly declining.

However, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior ruling coalition partner the Komeito party aim to pass it during the ongoing Diet session through July 22, as early as next Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, the bill cleared an upper house panel on a majority vote by the ruling bloc despite criticism it is aimed at securing the election of some incumbent LDP lawmakers in sparsely populated prefectures.

In a last-ditch effort to hamper the bill's passage, opposition parties submitted a motion of no confidence against Hiroo Ishii, an LDP lawmaker who chaired the panel, which was rejected by the ruling bloc.

The bill to revise the Public Offices Election Law seeks to add six seats to the 242-seat House of Councillors in the run-up to the upper chamber's next election in the summer of next year.

Under the LDP-drafted plan, two slots will be added to the electoral district in Saitama Prefecture, next to Tokyo, and four more for the proportional representation system.

The Saitama district has the highest number of voters per lawmaker in Japan and the plan is aimed at narrowing the vote weight disparities between the most and least populous constituencies to less than threefold.

The upper chamber was originally composed of seats elected from each of the nation's 47 prefectures as well as additional seats determined by the nationwide proportional representation system. Half of the seats are up for election every three years for six-year terms.

But the Japanese parliament was urged to address the issue of vote value disparities after the Supreme Court ruled that the gaps in the 2010 and 2013 upper house races, which stood at 5.00 times and 4.77 times, respectively, were "in a state of unconstitutionality," while stopping short of saying "unconstitutional."

In an attempt to reduce the disparities, the election law was revised in 2015 to group two pairs of western Japan prefectures with the country's smallest populations — Tottori and neighboring Shimane as well as Tokushima and adjoining Kochi — into two constituencies with one seat each.

It means that two of the four incumbent LDP upper house members elected in 2013 from the four prefectures, before the 2015 streamlining, will lose their chance to run in the integrated constituencies next year.

Apparently in act of "mercy" to them, the LDP-proposed bill would increase the number of seats allocated to the proportional representation system by four and introduce a "special quota" in the system, under which candidates are elected according to their place on a list submitted by each party.

The LDP plans to place the lawmakers who cannot run in the combined Tottori-Shimane or Tokushima-Kochi districts on its list for the special quota in the proportional representation contest, party sources said.

© KYODO

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