Rectifying vote-value gap still beyond reach?

by Natsuko Fukue

Staff Writer

Even if Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda dissolves the Lower House and calls an election, before a poll can be held he must rectify a major constitutional problem: the vote-value disparity in the Lower House.

Since the Supreme Court ruled last year that vote-value disparities of up to 2.3 in the 2009 general election were “in a state of unconstitutionality,” little progress has been made to mend the imbalance.

The situation is deadlocked in the Diet, mainly because the Liberal Democratic Party is demanding that Noda, whose public support is sagging, dissolve the lower chamber for a snap election. The LDP, the largest opposition force, is meanwhile strongly against the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s bills to address the vote disparity.

In the 2009 election, the Chiba No. 4 constituency, which gets one seat, had the largest population of voters — 489,437 — or 2.3 times greater than the Kochi No. 3 one-seat district, which had the fewest voters at 212,376.

This means it is harder for candidates in constituencies with large populations to win, and the value of one vote in some depopulated constituencies is higher than one in heavily populated areas.

To close the gap, the DPJ endorsed its electoral reform bills Monday in the Lower House committee on political ethics and the election system. Opposition party members boycotted the committee. The DPJ bills will probably not be passed because the opposition-controlled Upper House will block them.

“We have to correct the vote-value disparity, cut the Lower House seats and reform the electoral system as soon as possible,” Noda told reporters on Aug. 10.

The DPJ’s bills would abolish the Lower House’s current seat distribution, in which each of the 47 prefectures has one seat and the remaining are allocated among 253 districts. Under the current system, more seats are distributed to rural areas, the LDP’s stronghold until recent years.

But the Supreme Court last year ruled the seat distribution created an inequality and must be abolished.

The DPJ’s bills also include a plan to eliminate one single-seat constituency in five prefectures, which would marginally lower the disparity to two times from the current 2.3, reduce the number of Lower House seats to 440 by cutting 40 seats from the proportional representation segment, and introduce a new system for allocating proportional representation seats that would be advantageous for small parties.

The legislation would reduce single-seat constituencies to two from three in Yamanashi, Fukui, Tokushima, Kochi and Saga prefectures, whose populations are below 900,000.

To eliminate the disparity, the DPJ originally drafted a plan to add 21 seats in populated constituencies and take 21 away from depopulated ones. The original plan also called for eliminating 80 proportional representation seats. But due to strong opposition from outside as well as inside the DPJ, the party dropped this goal.

The LDP submitted a more conservative bill last month that merely eliminates one single-seat constituency in five prefectures.

LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki criticized the DPJ for proceeding with the reform bills’ deliberations in the Lower House committee without the presence of the opposition parties.

“The DPJ says, ‘We’re making efforts but we cannot reach a conclusion because the opposition is against our plan.’ It’s childish,” Tanigaki said at a press conference Thursday.

Meanwhile, legal experts slammed the political tug of war over the electoral reform.

“We don’t have time” for such conflicts, said Hidetoshi Masunaga, a veteran lawyer known for representing Blue LED inventor Shuji Nakamura and who cofounded Hitori Ippyo Jitsugen Kokumin Kaigi, a nonprofit organization launched in 2009 pushing for all votes to be of equal value.

The Lower House members’ term ends next summer, but Noda has reportedly indicated he plans to hold a general election in November.

Diet members, who set important national policies, should not be allowed to be elected via an unequal voting system, Masunaga said. “We cannot say Japan is a democratic country.”

In the United States, for instance, the seats in the House of Representatives are fairly distributed based on a decennial census. The vote disparities for the Senate are up to 65 times between the smallest number of voters per state and that of the largest, much bigger than Japan’s five times in the Upper House, with two seats allocated respectively to each state. But Masunaga said: “It (the U.S. disparity) cannot be compared with Japan’s because states are more like small countries.”

In Britain, constituencies are reviewed every five to 10 years to make sure each contains a similar number of voters, according to the U.K. Boundary Commissions.

Masunaga, who worked as a lawyer in the U.S. for six years, said there have been no electoral system reforms in the Diet because lawmakers do not want to jeopardize their chances of being re-elected, and because the true concept of democracy has not taken root yet.

“Japanese think democracy is the right to watch politicians play political games, not to participate in politics . . . and politicians have been comfortable with the current election system for too long. This has to change,” he said.