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In every democratic state, equality of voting rights is taken for granted, in principle, if not always in practice. There is no question that every vote should have the same value, or at least a nearly equal value, regardless of who casts it or where it is cast. In Japan’s case, however, there are wide disparities in vote value between urban and rural constituencies. Obviously, this reflects flaws in regional seat distribution, and the Diet will have its work cut out correcting the defects.

In the last Upper House election, in July 1998, voters in Tokyo had 4.98 times less say than those in the sparsely populated prefecture of Tottori. However, the Supreme Court ruled last week that the disparity is within tolerable bounds and therefore constitutional, thus effectively endorsing the election system as it existed at the time.

The ruling was supported by 10 justices, including the chief justice. Five other justices, however, opposed it, saying the partial rezoning of electoral districts in 1994 — which added four seats in some regions and subtracted four in others — still left “considerable inequalities” in the value of a vote. They concluded that the election system was unconstitutional.

The Diet should take the dissenting opinion seriously and work toward reducing inequalities. Since 1964, voters in urban constituencies have filed 10 suits seeking fairer distribution of Diet seats. The Supreme Court declared “constitutional” the 5.85-to-1 disparity in the 1986 election, but it described the 6.59-to-1 ratio in the 1992 balloting as being “in an unconstitutional state” — implying that it effectively violated the constitutionally guaranteed equality of voting rights.

The latest ruling — which also implies that a disparity not greater than about 6-to-1 is constitutional — points out that the Upper House is elected in a different way from the Lower House. It says prefecturally elected Upper House members, unlike Lower House members, represent the collective wishes of prefectures and that certain vote-value inequalities are therefore unavoidable.

It is hard, however, to imagine a nearly fivefold disparity being left uncorrected, even given the characteristics of the Upper House voting system. Voting-right equality ought to take precedence over the election system, not vice versa. Of course, prefectures’ historical, economic and social differences should be taken into account, but these should not and cannot be used as justification for wide voting-right discrepancies.

It seems likely that the existing discrepancies will remain as long as the election system is given priority over voting-right equality. In rejecting the latest petition, the Supreme Court again supported, but in stronger language, the Diet’s right to legislate the election system it wants. In 1998, the Supreme Court approved of the 4.97-to-1 disparity in the 1995 Upper House election, saying it was within the bounds of the Diet’s “discretionary judgment.” In the latest ruling, the court said the gap of 4.98 times in the 1998 election was within the limits of the legislature’s “discretionary right.”

It is clear, however, that the principle of vote-value equality, which is enshrined in the Constitution, takes precedence over the legal status of the election system. The Constitution stipulates that the Diet consists of the Lower and Upper Houses, but leaves details regarding elections, such as constituencies, to relevant laws. This means that respect for the equality of voting rights guaranteed by the Constitution should take priority over the Diet’s discretion. One of the five opposing justices says it is “very strange in the light of common sense” that Diet members should have an extensive discretionary right to determine the value of the votes of the very people who elect them. This must strike a responsive chord in the minds of ordinary voters.

The partial rezoning carried out in 1994 has failed to address fundamental problems. As a result, some sparsely populated prefectures have been given more seats than densely populated ones. Mie Prefecture, for example, has more people than Kagoshima Prefecture, but has only two seats, or just half the number in Kagoshima. Clearly, this is the result of the Diet’s failure to take drastic action to secure a more equitable distribution of seats.

A wholesale review of seat distribution is long overdue. For a start, the Diet should set up a standing review body to work out specific measures. With an Upper House election scheduled for summer 2001, it is necessary to resolve anomalies in the election system as soon as possible so that voters in the next election will have a more or less equal say at the polling booths.

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