Monday, December 31, 2012

The Upcoming House of Representatives Electoral Reform Forces Me to Keep Thinking

I have not addressed the potential impact of a deal on a more thoroughgoing reform, scheduled for the next (2013) Diet session, of the House of Representatives (HoR) electoral system including the reduction of the number of seats. To be honest, I had somehow forgotten about it till now. How does this change my previous calculations? I should do a full rewrite, incorporating this fact and an intermediate post as well. Is there someone out there who’ll pay me to do it? In the meantime, the following takes up the implications of the reform, not necessarily to my satisfaction.

The DPJ, LDP, and Komeito cut a deal on thoroughgoing reform on November 16, one day after the Diet had adopted legislation that addressed the most immediate constitutional concerns by eliminating five seats in the most overrepresented prefectures. However, the 2011 Supreme Court decision that ruled the current state of affairs a violation of the Japanese Constitution—a ruling that will certainly be repeated with regard to the December 16 election—came down hard on the one-seat set-aside per prefecture as a fundamental cause of the structural imbalance that constantly threatens to tip marginal districts over the (admittedly arbitrary) 2-to-1 threshold that the Supreme Court has taken up as a rule of thumb for the HoR. This creates significant political pressure to adopt a formula adopted that eliminates the set-aside or otherwise significantly alleviates the constant threat of slipping into unconstitutionality. Two years lapsed between the last significant reform in 1994, which also occurred partly in the wake of similar concerns over the constitutionality of a HoR electoral system that produced 3-to-1 vote-value disparities, and the first election held under the new (current) system in 1996. If all goes well in the next Diet session and history repeats itself, the first general election under the new system will be held in the bottom half of 2015.

How soon can an election be held under the new system? It should legitimately take a year after legislation is passed to lay the actual groundwork for a new general election, half a year to carve out the new districts and another half a year for voters and potential candidates to familiarize themselves with the new arrangement. That would take us deep into 2014. At that point, there is likely to be significant public pressure for a Diet with a mandate under the new system. Specifically, the consumption tax hike kicks in on April 1 of that year—and the second installment on October 1, 2015—and there is irresistible public pressure on the political class to shed their own pound of flesh in the process. This will surely take the form of a permanent reduction of the annual stipends for Diet members as well as their generous expense accounts, and almost as surely include a substantial reduction of the number of HoR members, which currently stands at 480. The latter, of course, is only possible to effect through a general election.

The 1994/96 experience tells us that the political class could push off an election under a new formula for some time, possibly even up to the end of the full four-year term, even when the constitutional circumstances remain unrepaired. The timing of the election would depend very much on ever-present factors, foremost being the relative electoral prospects of the incumbents and the opposition and the legislative leverage of the opposition to disrupt the incumbents’ ability to govern. However, in the case at hand, the public demand for self-sacrifice, peaking around the 2014 consumption tax rate hike and to a lesser extent the 2015 hike, will add its weight on the side of an early political resolution, complicating the task of forecasting the actual timing of the election and, by implication, the duration of the Abe administration. I’m going to wait and see how the reform process unfolds during the 2013 regular Diet session—it’s not even unthinkable that the political parties fail to come up with a solution that can make it out of the Diet on that occasion—in the hopes that I’ll have more material and better thoughts on which to base my judgment. In the meantime, I’ll keep my forecast as is.

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