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Election reform now key task for Abe & Co.

by Shinya Ajima

Kyodo

Three months after taking office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe still enjoys strong public support for his Cabinet while talking of bolder moves to kick-start the ailing economy. But a warning light is flashing on a key issue on his to-do list: election reforms.

The issue of vote-value disparities, or the gap in the value of each vote between the least- and most-populous constituencies, is dominating the political arena, with recent court rulings declaring the imbalances in violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of voter equality.

Abe’s governing coalition is trying to move swiftly to address the vote-weight gap after the judiciary blamed the legislature for taking its rulings “lightly.” But the opposition camp is seeking swifter and more comprehensive reforms.

“We have been given serious court rulings. The Cabinet will immediately consider necessary legal steps,” Abe said Thursday after receiving a recommendation from a Diet panel to revise the current zoning of electoral districts by reducing the number of single-seat constituencies in the House of Representatives to 295 from 300.

The government aims to submit a related bill to the Diet this month, lawmakers said.

The sense of urgency is largely due to high court rulings that declared unconstitutional or invalid the results of last December’s general election, which was held with the vote-value disparities left unaddressed. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in the election by beating the Democratic Party of Japan.

In the Lower House election, the value of an individual vote in the constituency with the smallest number of eligible voters was 2.43 times larger than that in the district with the biggest number.

That was worse than the 2.3 times disparity in the 2009 general election, which brought the DPJ to power. The Supreme Court judged in March 2011 that the 2009 poll was “in a state of unconstitutionality.”

With the high court decisions, the Supreme Court is expected to give a unified judgment within this year.

Last November, the Diet, while the DPJ was in power, enacted legislation to eliminate five single-seat constituencies. But it was not applied when the election was held the following month. The recent court rulings were issued over a series of lawsuits brought by two lawyer groups that called for the December poll to be invalidated.

Abe is at first trying to revise the Public Offices Election Law as soon as possible to reflect the panel’s recommendation, which would reduce the maximum disparity ratio to 1.998 times, the first time it will have fallen below the threshold of 2 times in 17 years.

“I believe the Diet has the responsibility to achieve this,” Abe told a Diet committee session Friday. “It is our mission to keep the disparity (ratio) under 2 times.”

Reducing the disparity ratio is not, however, a guarantee that more profound reforms will follow under Abe.

Opposition parties say he is moving too slowly and urge swift enforcement of wider reforms, including deep cuts in the number of Diet seats. The demands conflict with Abe’s stance of first addressing the disparity and then discussing comprehensive measures in cooperation with the opposition camp.

In fact it was the LDP and partner New Komeito that, as the major opposition force in November, agreed with the DPJ to reduce the number of Diet seats during the current session, which ends in June. The accord was an attempt to show voters that lawmakers can make tough decisions on their behalf at a time when the public is being asked to accept a higher consumption tax starting next April.

Abe’s ruling bloc will face mounting pressure from the opposition camp to yield results before the July election for the Upper House, which will be a critical contest for the ruling bloc as it lacks a majority in the chamber and needs to demonstrate its popularity to underscore its comeback and to pursue other goals on its agenda.