National / Politics

Vote-value disparity ensures rural few maintain clout over urban masses

by Isabel Reynolds and Maiko Takahashi

Bloomberg

In the nation’s elections, it can take five city dwellers to match the voting power of a single farmer.

The imbalance, a legacy of shrinking populations in rural areas that hasn’t been fixed through redrawing the districts, is set to continue as Japan prepares for a general election called by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for next month. A Supreme Court ruling Wednesday on ballots in the 2013 Upper House election stopped short of invalidating the vote, leaving the discrepancy in legal limbo with little political impetus to end it.

For Abe, 60, who is seeking a new mandate for his economic revival program with the nation in recession, the anomaly both helps and potentially hinders. His chances of winning benefit from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s domination in the countryside, while the out-sized influence of rural voters risks undercutting his push for deregulation and more open trade.

“If representation was shifted to a more one-person one-vote result, then the power of the agricultural lobby and the social security lobby, particularly the medical lobby, would be reduced,” said Robert Feldman, head of Japan economic research at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities Co. in Tokyo. “Cities tend to be a little bit more pro-market than the regions, so you would probably have a more deregulated structure if you re-allocated the seats toward the cities.”

The top court ruled Wednesday that the upper chamber election last July was held in “a state of unconstitutionality” because of the excessive weight given to votes cast in rural areas.

Lawyers who filed the suit demanded the election, won by the LDP, be rendered void because one vote in the least- populated constituency carried weight equal to 4.77 ballots in the most heavily populated district.

“We have a ruling saying the election is in an unconstitutional state but isn’t against the Constitution, which is a form of logic most people would not be able to understand,” Hidetoshi Masunaga, one of the plaintiff lawyers, said after the decision. “The problem of achieving one-person one-vote will not be resolved unless the people take action,” he told reporters in the rain outside the court gates.

The Diet passed a bill last year that cuts the number of seats in the more powerful Lower House by five to 475 in next month’s election after the court found the general election of 2012 unconstitutional, a more severe verdict than Wednesday’s ruling. The main political parties remain divided on how to address the issue.

The third plank of Abe’s economic policies to end deflation and spur growth after unprecedented monetary stimulus and fiscal spending — is a strategy of deregulation to boost private investment.

The plan includes joining a U.S.-led trade agreement, and transforming the agricultural and health care industries. To do so, he must overcome vested interests such as a powerful medical lobby and the nation’s biggest agricultural body — one of the LDP’s traditional support bases. Upset these groups, and Abe risks alienating many of the people who voted him into power.

“The system remains in place that seeks old-fashioned public works as a way of reviving the regions,” Kohei Otsuka, the Democratic Party of Japan’s deputy policy chief, said in an interview Wednesday. “Japan must have the courage to break out of this curse” of never-ending fiscal stimulus, he said.

The LDP has made regional revitalization one of the key pillars of Abe’s party’s platform for the Dec. 14 election. Abe is considering subsidies for regional governments and tax benefits for companies seeking to relocate to outlying areas, Kyodo News reported Nov. 22, citing an interview with the prime minister.

Even so, the drain of people from rural to urban areas continues, exacerbating the disparity in voting weights between constituencies, Feldman said.

Hiroyuki Hosoda, the LDP’s deputy secretary general, said each political party has different views on rectifying the voting inconsistency.

“All the parties are negotiating and we have not reached agreement,” Hosoda said in an interview this week. “If it was something the government could do on its own, we could pass a bill with a majority. We suggested cutting 30 seats.”

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