Balance vote disparity
Published January 16th 2004 in Asahi Shimbun

Diet must act to remedy unfair seat distribution.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled the July 2001 Upper House election was constitutional despite an enormous inequity in the value of single votes cast.

Nine of the 15 justices on the top court's Grand Bench argued that the weight differential among single votes in the election was ``not beyond the limits of legislative discretionary power the Diet is invested with.'' It is greatly to be regretted that the Supreme Court's ruling simply supports the existing deplorable situation.

But a closer look at the views expressed by the justices shows the court is adjusting its traditional position, which virtually leaves the decision on the issue to the Diet.

Four of the nine justices who backed the majority opinion included a warning to the Diet, saying the court may declare the next Diet election unconstitutional if lawmakers take no action to rectify the existing disparity in the weight of votes.

In other words, a majority of the guardians of the Constitution may declare the Upper House poll to be held in July unconstitutional unless the Diet takes convincing steps to narrow the weight differential. The upper chamber is now under urgent pressure to respond to this warning.

To understand the ruling, we need to look back on political events of autumn 2000. With less than a year to go before the Upper House poll in question, the three ruling parties enacted a revision to the Public Offices Election Law to introduce the so-called open-list system into the proportional representation segment of Upper House elections, overcoming strong resistance from the opposition parties. Under the new system, political parties do not rank their candidates on lists, instead allowing voters to write on their ballots the name of either an individual candidate or the party they wish to vote for. The ruling parties hoped this move would help their celebrity candidates, such as famous TV personalities, garner more votes-and more seats-for the parties.

But all through the debate on election reform, little attention was paid to the issue of vote-weight gaps. The ruling coalition took only a cosmetic step-reducing the number of seats allocated to the nation's three least-populated districts by two apiece-and left the maximum differential in the value of a single vote at a factor of greater than five.

Such moves clearly demonstrate that the nation's lawmakers are bent on protecting their vested interests at any cost and dead set against any drastic reform that could threaten them. Meanwhile, the ``watchdog of the Constitution'' has consistently failed to force any legislative action to correct this basic flaw in the election system. This lamentable state of affairs has led to a steady erosion of public confidence in the legislative and judicial systems.

But the Supreme Court, it seems, is finally awakening to the danger inherent in maintaining the status quo, a situation that is only deepening public cynicism about the systems. The ruling's dissenting opinion reflected stringent criticisms expressed by six of the justices.

Justice Hiroshi Fukuda, a former career diplomat, for instance, commenting on the argument for creating a European-style constitutional court, wrote that if the Supreme Court keeps avoiding a decision to label the huge vote-weight disparity as unconstitutional, it would mean ``the current judicial system would lose its function of determining constitutionality.''

Justice Takehisa Fukazawa, a former lawyer, recommended annulling the results of the Upper House election, adding that ``expecting the Diet to take action to redress the disparity is like waiting 100 years for the waters of the Yellow River to clear.''

Equalizing the weight of individual votes is crucial for maintaining our nation's foundation of representative democracy. The top court's traditional majority opinion, namely that a certain degree of disproportion in the value of a single vote is acceptable owing to the region-representing nature of Upper House constituencies, is clearly based on tortured logic.

That same weight disparity also works to uphold the mechanism of traditional pork-barrel influence trading. The ruling offers a good opportunity for legislators to embark on radical reform to narrow the disparities for both houses of the Diet.

The nation's judiciary is beginning to change with the times. The Diet should also change.