For the third time in a row, the Supreme Court has ruled that the disparity in the value of votes between populous and less populous constituencies in a Lower House general election was so wide that it violated the principle of equality guaranteed under the Constitution. Though again falling short of ruling the election results invalid, the top court decision on the December 2014 election should be taken as a clear denunciation of lawmakers’ failure to fundamentally correct the regional imbalance in the power given to voters in choosing representatives to the Diet. Members of the Diet must not take the court ruling as a reprieve but as a stern warning against their negligence to take action.
In ruling Wednesday on a set of lawsuits filed by lawyers seeking to invalidate the outcome of Lower House races in 295 single-seat districts in the 2014 election, the Supreme Court determined that the election — in which the maximum gap in the value of votes reached 2.13 to 1 — was held in a “state of unconstitutionality” but declined to rule the election invalid. Three of the 14 justices said the election was “unconstitutional,” including two who asserted that the outcome should be invalidated.
It was the same judgment handed down regarding the two previous Lower House elections — the August 2009 poll that brought the Democratic Party of Japan to power, in which the vote value gap hit as much as 2.30 to 1, and the December 2012 election that saw the Liberal Democratic Party’s return to the helm of government, in which the disparity grew to as wide as 2.43 to 1.
An amendment to the Public Offices Election Law after the 2012 campaign narrowed the gap within 2 to 1 based on the 2010 national census, but the disparity again widened to 2.13 to 1 by the time of the December 2014 election — which means that a ballot cast by a voter in one constituency carried 2.13 times more weight in choosing a lawmaker than a vote cast in another. Such a disparity exists because the Lower House seats are not allocated in accordance with population distribution.
The majority opinion of the Supreme Court justices said the amendment, which cut one seat each from five less-populous prefectures, resulted in some progress — so they did not rule the 2014 election unconstitutional — but they still called for steady efforts by the Diet to narrow the gap in vote values even further “so that it can more appropriately reflect the popular will.”
The sharp disparity in the value of votes is a grave issue that distorts the representation of popular will in the Diet — the foundation of Japan’s parliamentary democracy. Still, calls to close the gap face resistance from lawmakers, who charge that redistribution of Diet seats in accordance with population would deprive voters in underpopulated areas the chance to be heard in national politics. The resistance will be stiff when the very survival of lawmakers is at stake. Partisan interests take precedence when discussions are left in the hands of the lawmakers.
It’s obvious that patchwork efforts to narrow the gap by redrawing some electoral districts can only be a temporary solution, given that the population flight from rural to urban areas continues unabated. A 2011 Supreme Court ruling on the 2009 election said the current system of first allocating one Lower House seat to each of the 47 prefectures and then distributing the remaining seats according to population lies at the bottom of the wide disparity in the value of votes. However, this system has remained intact through the two subsequent Lower House elections.
After discussions between parties went nowhere, a panel created under the auspices of the Lower House speaker has been tasked with weighing fundamental reforms to the electoral system. In a recommendation expected early next year, the panel is reportedly considering a new system that would more accurately reflect prefectural populations in the distribution of Diet seats.
If that system were adapted to the current 295 single-seat constituencies, nine prefectures ranging from Aomori to Okinawa would lose one seat each, which will be redistributed to constituencies in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Shizuoka and Aichi. While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he will respect the panel’s recommendations, opposition is expected from LDP lawmakers. But the lawmakers should realize they won’t be allowed to drag their feet any further.
In the Upper House, where the maximum disparity in the value of votes is even wider, an amendment enacted this summer will redraw some prefecture-based constituencies and reallocate seats in time for the election next year. But even with the reforms there will remain a gap of nearly 3 to 1 — an improvement from the disparity of 4.77 to 1 in the last election in 2013 but still too great.
Given the serious problems that it poses and continuing demographic shifts, correcting the imbalance in the value of votes should not just end in temporary steps to keep the gap within a certain range, but ultimately should involve reform of the electoral system itself. The complicated issues involved and interests at stake should no longer be used as excuses for inaction.
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