The Whys and Wherefores of House of Councilors Elections

By Reiji Yoshida
Published July 10th 2004 in The Japan Times

Following a rocky Diet session, Sunday's House of Councilors election represents a de facto litmus test that will measure public support for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

It is the second Upper House race during Koizumi's administration, with the national leader having been elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party and prime minister in April 2001.

The following are basic questions and answers related to the upcoming election:

How is the House of Councilors structured?

Upper House members serve six-year terms, with half the seats contested every three years. The total number of seats in the chamber will be trimmed by five in this election, bringing the total to 242 and completing a two-phase scheme to cut 10 seats.

Of the 242 seats, 96 are decided through the proportional representation segment, while 146 are chosen from 47 prefectural constituencies that are allotted two to eight seats, in line with their population. Tokyo is the constituency with the largest number of seats, at eight, while 27 prefectures have two.

Do Upper House elections have much of an impact on Japan's political arena, given the House of Representatives' pre-eminence under the Constitution?

In theory, the election results should not directly affect the incumbent prime minister; the decision of the House of Representatives takes priority over that of the Upper House if the two chambers designate different people for prime minister.

The LDP currently enjoys a single-party majority in the Lower House.

However, a poor showing in the Upper House race could lead to calls from within the LDP for senior officials to take responsibility and step down.

Indeed, in the 1998 Upper House election, then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was forced to step down as LDP president after the party suffered a serious setback, winning only 44 seats.

How does the proportional representation part of the ballot work?

A voter can cast two ballots in an Upper House election: one for a prefectural constituency candidate and one for the proportional representation segment.

Preregistered political parties draw up lists of proportional representation candidates before the election. The list is considered nonbinding because the candidates are placed in no particular order.

For the proportional representation ballot, a voter writes either the name of a party or the name of one candidate from the parties' roster.

The number of seats a party wins is proportional to the total number of votes it has won both as a party and through its candidates. Who actually fills these seats is decided by the number of votes the candidates garnered as individuals.

Until the 1998 Upper House election, the proportional representation segment was the same as that for the Lower House -- a binding-list system, in which the parties' lists ranked all the candidates in advance.

But the ruling coalition legislated to change this in October 2000, despite strong protests from opposition parties.

This move was viewed as an attempt by the LDP to reinvigorate its traditional vote-gathering base, including construction companies and agricultural cooperatives, as all candidates would have to campaign in earnest if they were not given priority ranking.

Whether the new system favored the LDP was unclear in the 2001 election, as these vote-gatherers did not appear to show any signs of renewed energy. Many voters chose to write the name of a party rather than that of a specific candidate, which significantly reduced the effects of the nonbinding list system.

Electoral inequalities in the Upper House have again widened in this election, with one vote cast in Tottori Prefecture worth 5.16 votes in Tokyo. Isn't this unconstitutional?

Many legal experts say the Supreme Court could rule that Sunday's election violates Article 14 of the Constitution, which stipulates that all people are equal under the law.

In January, the Supreme Court ruled that the 2001 Upper House election was constitutional, although a vote in the least populous prefecture was worth 5.06 votes in the most heavily populated one. The 15-member bench voted nine-to-six in favor of this ruling.

But four of the nine justices who allowed the 5.06 disparity also warned that there would be "much room" for the top court to rule otherwise for the next Upper House election if there was no reapportionment of seats in the chamber.

However, the Diet has continued to put off any decision on correcting these inequalities, underscoring the difficulty of getting the legislature to act on matters that would affect it directly.