Top court balks at voiding 2012 poll

Critics hit ruling as green light for continued vote-value gaps

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

The Supreme Court declared on Wednesday that the 2012 Lower House general election was “in a state of unconstitutionality” due to the large disparity in vote value among constituencies, but declined to nullify its outcome.

It was the first such ruling, based on nuanced Japanese phraseology that stops just shy of an outright declaration of unconstitutionality, by the top court since March 2011, when it found that the summer 2009 general election was identically flawed.

“Although the 2012 election was in a state of unconstitutionality in that it was violating the principle of vote-weight equality among constituencies, there is room to acknowledge that action was made to redress the disparities within a reasonable period of time frame,” Chief Justice Hironobu Takesaki said, referring to the Diet’s last-ditch attempt last November, a month before the election, to cut the number of single-seat constituencies in the Lower House to 295 from 300.

The 2012 Lower House election, which saw the Liberal Democratic Party return to power with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at its helm, was marred by vote value disparities as high as 2.43 times, the highest in a decade.

The high disparity rate immediately prompted critics to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Abe’s administration. Spearheaded by reformist lawyers Hidetoshi Masunaga and Kuniaki Yamaguchi, a barrage of lawsuits followed nationwide earlier this year seeking to invalidate the outcome of the election.

In an apparent sign of growing dissatisfaction over the Diet’s lack of effort to close the vote-value gap, many high courts have come close to ruling fully for the plaintiffs: In all 16 cases, elections were found “in a state of unconstitutionality” and 14 were found outright unconstitutional. The Hiroshima High Court even went so far as to rule two invalid.

Dissatisfied with Wednesday’s “conservative” decision, one of the lead plaintiffs, lawyer Yamaguchi said it was emblematic of the top court’s resistance to change, adding that it might serve as a worrying disincentive for lower courts to make reformist decisions in the future.

The long-standing controversy surrounding inequality in the value of votes among constituencies flared anew in March 2011, when the Supreme Court ruled the general election in summer 2009 was in a state of unconstitutionality. This was the first such decision handed down by the top court since 1994.

“Compared with that decision (in 2011),” said lawyer Yamaguchi, “I would say Wednesday’s ruling signals a regression.”

In reaching its decision about the 2009 election, the court cited the maximum disparity rate of 2.30 times. It also demanded the abolition of a rule automatically giving each of the 47 prefectures an additional seat regardless of population size, which by its nature favors more sparsely populated rural areas.

One major point of contention in Wednesday’s ruling was whether the Diet took the warning seriously before the December poll.

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