Thursday, August 23, 2012

What to Make of the Electoral Reform Bill Being Pushed by the DPJ?

The DPJ and the LDP are currently engaged in a chicken game over the deficit bond authorization and electoral reform bills. Each side is implicitly telling the other side that the voters will assess the larger part of the blame on the latter for a) endangering the solvency of the Japanese Government, causing lasting harm to the Japanese economy and b) putting the country into the jeopardy of a constitutionally flawed election cycle. I’ve written about the former on and off but have not really engaged with the latter, mainly because I believed and continue to believe that the lower house can and will make do with a general election under the current configuration at worst—MTC and I have gone back and forth on that on our blogs and in private for maybe a couple of years now—but this may be a good time to do a preliminary exploration of the subject in anticipation of a possible if more distant deal.

The Noda administration has the numbers to get the bills through the lower house but between the DPJ and PNP, it only has 91 of the 121 votes needed to pass the bills in the upper house. It needs 20 more. So who will oblige?

It so happens that the parties with the smallest representations in the upper house, from the Okinawa Social Mass Party (1) to Your Party (11) have between them exactly 20 seats. The People’s Life First (12) could replace YP with one to spare. Indeed, the coalition’s proposal is not utterly devoid of charms for the wee ones. It reduces the number of regional proportional seats from 180 to 140 (not 100 as promised in the DPJ election manifesto)* but uses a formula for 40 of those seats that will essentially end up allocating them among the smallest parties. This means that the cuts will come out of the DPJ and LDP ranks. As the result, the smaller parties will be empowered relatively speaking. (They will be proportionally larger. Perhaps more important for them, the likelihood of the largest party being denied a singular majority will be greater. But the DPJ will take what it can get.) It was concocted in the pre-Ozawa defecation days, when Komeito could deliver an upper house majority singlehanded, to woo it with half a loaf—Komeito apparently wants an even larger cut. However, Komeito is not biting, most likely in honor of its still-continuing cohabitation with the LDP.

Right now, this looks impossible to engineer any time soon. Today, when the ruling coalition convened the Special Committee on Political Ethics and Election Law for deliberation of the electoral reform bill without securing the consent of the opposition parties to move forward, all the opposition parties represented in the committee including LF, YP, JCP (6) and SDP (4) absented themselves in protest. By far the most likely outcome remains, in my view, an autumn election under the current lower house configuration, with or without the constitutional defect* repaired. But this formula comes across as a reasonable starting point for a post-election compromise.

Finally, it’s noteworthy that the upper house settles for a five-out, five-in constitution-compliance formula that has a similar effect as the lower house adjustment* while the DPJ can propose a more drastic 45-member cut (including the five single-seat district reduction) for the lower house. The projected DPJ losses from the lower house proportional cut will come out of the ranks of the proportional list-only candidates**, most of them written in after the SMD candidates signing up for their zombie-insurance just in case but hitting the jackpot when the DPJ swept the LDP out of huge swathes of single-member districts. They are as expendable as the fat in the camel’s hump when traversing the political desert.
* The bill also reduces the number of single-member districts in five prefectures from three to two each in order to eliminate an imbalance that the Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional.

** The pre-defection DPJ and LDP were more or lessen evenly split in the five prefectures (Yamanashi, Fukui, Tokushima, Kochi, and Saga) where the SMD cuts would come from. This was a little surprising to me, given the relative strength of the LDP in the outlying regions, and likely indicates the overwhelming force of the 2009 DPJ landslide victory.

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