Media watch: LDP heavyweights scramble to kill own redistricting plan

Hiroyuki Hosoda (Asahi)

For years, concerned citizens have asked Japanese courts to address the vote disparities that have plagued national elections since the electoral system was revamped nearly 30 years ago. In almost all the cases, judges have found that such disparities are provisionally unconstitutional but nevertheless refuse to order new elections to be held in accordance with plaintiffs’ desires, saying that it is up to the Japanese legislature to remedy the situation, presumably by redistributing Diet seats in accordance with changing demographics. Now, the Diet has a plan that will pretty much do that and, what’s more, it was formulated by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which implies it should be easy to implement. However, in recent months, several high-powered lawmakers in the party have finally come to understand what carrying out the plan would mean and that if it is they could actually lose their constituencies and thus are now trying to undermine it.

An April 15 article in Toyo Keizai Online summarized the plan, which has been dubbed the “add 10, take away 10” formula, because it would remove ten Lower House seats from rural districts that have been losing population for several decades and add ten seats to predominantly urban districts where populations have risen. The plan was prompted by demographic calculations made following the 2020 census and released last June. As a result, Diet Affairs Committee chairpersons from all the political parties have agreed to establish a joint deliberative council to lay out the 10-10 plan for the prime minister’s approval, but there have been delays because a substantial portion of the LDP has voiced objection. And while Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has indicated he supports the revision, those with reservations have a lot of pull within the party. Kishida is supposed to submit the revision by June 25, or just before the Upper House poll, and while the revision would not effect that election it might cause strife within the party that could be a distraction from campaigning activities. 

The calculus for the plan was first submitted in April 2016 by the ruling coalition and was subsequently passed by both houses. The concept follows what is called the “Adams method,” which, in Japan’s case, means that the number of Lower House seats assigned to each prefecture is determined by the prefecture’s population. According to the census, which is carried out by the interior ministry, the Lower House represents a total of 289 constituencies, ranging from Tottori #2 District, with 274,160 people, to Tokyo #22 district with 573,969 people. These extremes represent the largest gap in terms of voting disparity—a factor of 2.049—meaning that votes in Tottori #2 are worth 2.049 times the votes in Tokyo #22. In fact, there are 20 constituencies where the vote value is more than twice as much as as what it is in Tokyo. The object of the 10-10 plan is to reduce this disparity at least to less than 2.0 times. Specifically, the plan will increase the number of seats for all of Tokyo Prefecture by 5, Kanagawa Prefecture by 2, and Chiba, Aichi, and Saitama Prefectures by one each, because these areas have seen substantial increases in population over the years. At the same time, Miyagi, Fukushima, Niigata, Shiga, Wakayama, Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Ehime, and Nagasaki Prefectures will each lose one seat, because they have lost population.

Last June, when the plan was drawn up, there didn’t seem to be any pushback, but since the end of the year, as more LDP members realize what the plan would actually accomplish, the system has come under attack from within. Hiroyuki Hosoda, who, as speaker of the Lower House is formally party-less but is in reality a staunch LDP member, has been the most vocal about the plan, saying that it would “bully” rural prefectures, since ten of them would each lose a representative seat in the Diet. Though the Constitution strictly states that votes should be equal in value, Hosoda wants a new plan that will not “take away seats from rural prefectures and give them to urban areas.” He supports a compromise 3-3 plan. 

In April, the portion of LDP Lower House MPs who said the plan should be “reviewed” stood at about 60 percent. Toyo Keizai thinks that the main impetus behind this increase in skepticism is one seat in particular: Yamaguchi #4 District, which is currently being held by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. If the plan is approved, Yamaguchi would lose one seat, and the likely scenario would be to combine the #4 and #3 Districts, and #3 is held by Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, who has only occupied it since the last Lower House election. Hayashi was previously in the Upper House, but since Hayashi has ambitions one day to be prime minister and customarily the LDP never elects an Upper House lawmaker to the post of party president, he had to run for a Lower House seat. Consequently, if the plan goes through, Abe and Hayashi might have to fight each other to keep their constituent seats. (Another prominent seat that could vanish is the one in Wakayama Prefecture currently held by former secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai, but since he’s 83 years old it’s not certain he will even run again.)

The reason more and more LDP members are questioning the plan is because Abe is currently the head of the party’s biggest faction and still seems to harbor ambitions to be prime minister for a third time. Losing his Diet seat would obviously make such a dream impossible to realize. Also, Abe currently sees himself as the LDP’s kingmaker, a position that is threatened by Kishida’s unexpected ascendancy as prime minister and burgeoning public support. If the ruling coalition wins big in the Upper House election this summer, Kishida’s position will be reinforced further, setting up a situation that could see him remaining in the top slot past the next Lower House election. 

This rivalry was the main topic of conversation last week between host Yuko Shimizu and former Asahi Shimbun reporter Akira Sato on Shimizu’s web talk show “Hitotsuki Mansatsu.” Sato pointed to a May 22 article in the tabloid Nikkan Gendai that suggested Abe’s increasing resentment of Kishida. As prime minister, Kishida is expected to show up at all LDP fund-raising events, regardless of the faction involved, but Abe pointedly did not show up at the fund-raiser for Kishida’s own faction. Nor did his most prominent acolyte, Sanae Takaichi. To not attend the party president’s own function is tantamount to a slap in the face. Ever since then, insiders have been buzzing about what Abe’s end game is, especially since he needs as many party heavyweights to endorse him if the 10-10 plan goes through and he has to battle Hayashi for a seat. Alienating Kishida may be a disastrous move.

If the seat were being contested in the Kanto region, Abe would probably win. After all, Abe has always lived in Tokyo. The only reason he represents Yamaguchi is because his family is from there, but Hayashi, who is also the scion of a political dynasty, has stronger roots in the region (his mother has family connections to the biggest private employer in the region), so odds-makers give him the edge over Abe in a horse race. Abe, of course, could still hang on to his Diet seat by being included on the proportional slate of candidates, but then he could kiss his hopes for a third term as prime minister good-bye. Proportional candidates, like Upper House MPs, have no chance of becoming LDP president. 

And as Sato points out, losing that kind of imprimatur has more dire implications for Abe than merely being locked out of the party presidency. He would also lose his power over internal party politics. In a kind of ironic corollary to the redistricting saga, some years ago there was an election for the mayor of Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi’s most prominent city, that was seen as a kind of proxy war between Abe and Hayashi. Abe’s candidate won, and as a result he invited the people who worked for the campaign to Tokyo to attend an LDP party on the eve of the 2016 Sakura Viewing event sponsored by the government, the same event that has been the target of opposition charges of corruption, since national tax funds were being used to promote the LDP’s interests. These charges could come back to haunt Abe if he loses his clout. Sato also mentions the 2019 Lower House election where LDP candidate Anri Kawai paid people to vote for her in her Hiroshima district. Kawai and her husband, also an LDP member, both confessed to the crime, but the press has always been baffled by the money involved. According to documents, the LDP authorized ¥150 million for the Kawai campaign, or 10 times the amount that would normally go to a Lower House candidate. The math of the scandal indicates that the Kawais didn’t use all that money, so where did the rest go? Some reporters have said that it was Abe who authorized the cash, half of which he diverted to Yamaguchi, probably illegally. Prosecutors are still reportedly investigating the case, and if Abe falls from grace, they could very well indict him.

But Sato’s and Shimizu’s conversation revealed another aspect of the 10-10 matter that hasn’t been discussed much, which is that rural districts have always been the LDP’s stronghold. By kicking money back to these regions in terms of agricultural support and over-priced public works projects, these constituencies have remained in the LDP’s pocket for the almost 70 years that the party has been in power. But now the LDP may lose ten consituencies due to depopulation. The party faces more of a challenge in the urban areas where the seats will be moving, so the 10-10 plan is a reckoning for them. And who can they blame but themselves? Though they’ve funneled cash to these regions for decades, they haven’t really seen to the residents’ most important needs, which is to guarantee a sustainable financial base so that young people will want to remain. As soon as they’re old enough they move to the cities. Those expensive public works projects don’t benefit them in any way they can perceive. They only benefit the LDP’s main corporate sponsors, in particular construction companies who return the favor by contributing to LDP candidates’ campaign chests, so the money just moves within a limited circle and doesn’t do anything meaningful for the community. And since most career LDP politicians don’t live with their constituencies—they live in Tokyo, like Abe—they don’t see what’s happening to those communities. So if these rural prefectures lose seats and Abe ends up losing to Hayashi, he has no right to complain, because it’s a natural outcome of LDP’s politics of money, which his family was instrumental in making a reality. 

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