Tuesday, July 17, 2012

We Can Have Elections!

Well of one kind. And only with regrets. And they are not the elections everyone is talking about.

Quietly, and without very much fuss, it seems that Ishikawa Yasuo, the disgraced former minister of defense (Mister "I am an amateur in defense issues and that is the epitome of civilian control" to you and me), now secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Japan's House of Councillors delegation, has crafted a simple plan to rectify the disparities in that House that the courts have ruled unconstitutional. The plan has the agreement of the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito and the disappointed acquiescence of the rest of the opposition parties. In contrast with the reform of the House of Representatives districts, which has the various parties talking past one another, the Ishikawa Plan has an excellent chance of being converted into law by the end of this extended regular session of the Diet.

The plan is a minimal, hair-splitting solution to the Supreme Court-mandated reform of the disparities in the House of Councillors. Kanagawa Prefecture, which currently suffers from the fewest Senators per capita, will be bounced from six senators to eight. Osaka Prefecture, which is the next in line in terms of underrepresentation, will be similarly bounced from six to eight.

To supply these four new Senate seats, someone will have to give up seats. Those someones will be Fukushima Prefecture (great timing!) and Gifu Prefecture, both of which will drop from four senators to just two.

This is a quick and dirty solution. The highest level of disparity in the country, currently 5.11 to 1 in between the voters in Kanagawa Prefecture and those in Tottori Prefecture, will drop to 4.75 to 1 in between those in Hyogo Prefecture and those in Tottori. This slips below the court-mandated maximum of 4.99 to 1, allowing for a legal election to take place on schedule in July next year. (J)

While the Ishikawa Plan seems unremarkable for what it contains, what it does not contain makes it interesting. Gone, for example, is any hint of the DPJ's manifesto promise to cut 40 seats from the House of Councillors. This is a huge concession on the part of Ishikawa, a reputed Ozawa Ichiro toady. Also absent from the plan is any hint of an attempt to accommodate the New Komeito Party's and the Democratic Socialist Party's desires to replace the d'Hondt proportional seat distribution system with the Additional Member System. The minor parties have been asked to wait to have their desires answered prior to the 2016 electoral cycle, ostensibly in order give everyone time to think about the proposal.

In the absence honoring the promises of massive seat cuts made in the DPJ's 2009 manifesto, reform of the House of Councillors was always relatively simple. This is due in part to the greater level of disparity allowed -- 4.99 to 1 as opposed to 1.99 to 1, the standard set by the Supreme Court for the House of Representatives districts.

Another contributing factor is, perversely, the knowledge that the House of Councillors had all the constitutional sense wrung out of it decades ago. Designed to be friendly to independents, and thus a brake on party mob rule, it became partisan battleground through the 1982 introduction of the awarding of proportional seats from party lists. The takeover of the House by parties failed to upend the relationship between the two Houses thanks to the persistence of the 1955 System, whereby the LDP retained dominance in the House of Representatives and the country and the Socialist Party played the part of an opposition while being the dominant party's tacit accommodators. However, in the 1990s the concorde collapsed, half after the breakup of the LDP in 1993 and half in the Socialists' committing ideological suicide from 1994 onward.

The person who really cracked the nut, however, was, unsurprisingly, Ozawa Ichiro. First through the New Frontier Party and then later through the DPJ, Ozawa capitalized on the perversion of the the House of Councillors' original purpose and status to make it, and not the House of Representatives, the fulcrum point in politics.

That the minority parliament in the Diet can now, through control of the House of Councillors, hold the rest of the apparatus of government hostage, was never the intent of the writers of the Constitution. The Ishikawa Plan's meagre reforms will make no dent in this anomalous situation.

The resolution of the unconstitutionality of the districts in the House of Councillors sets up a huge battle over the reform of the districts of the House of Representatives. It will not be resolved, as the LDP desires, with a simple abolition of the five smallest electoral districts. The DPJ rank-and-file will demand an Armageddon over House of Representatives redistricting.

Expect them to get one.


Jan Moren said...

What are the odds that a maximum 5:1 disparity allowance will sooner or later become the same 2:1 disparity later decided on for the lower house?

This will only ever be a stopgap measure, not a permanent solution anyhow. The details matter little.

MTC said...

Herr Morén -

1) Better a stopgap solution than no solution.

2) The seats in the House of Councillors were never envisioned to be parcelled out according to population. That the courts inserted themselves into this battle, then came up with an entirely arbitrary 5:1 ratio, is indicative of a judiciary acting out of frustration, not a search for justice.