Japan’s Supreme Court ruled the election that propelled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe back to power last year was unconstitutional due to the excessive weight of votes cast in rural areas, news agency Kyodo reported.
At the same time, the court didn’t overturn Abe’s December 2012 election victory.
“We have been carrying out these lawsuits on the election for a long time and we didn’t give up because we felt we were moving forward a little at a time,” said Kuniaki Yamaguchi, a lawyer and one of the plaintiffs in the case. “Looking at this ruling, it seems that we’ve gone into reverse.”
Plaintiffs have been trying to force a revamp of an electoral system under which lawmakers in rural districts often represent fewer people than in urban regions, giving more weight to rural areas that are a key constituency of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. Today’s decision came after 15 lower courts ruled voting in some constituencies was unconstitutional, including in two where courts declared the results invalid.
“We will take this verdict very seriously,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko told reporter in Tokyo after the ruling.
The ruling comes as Abe seeks to keep his focus on the third phase of his economic reforms and efforts to limit the potential effect on the economy of a sales tax increase next year.
“He should be taking the lead in resolving the situation,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “If he’s seen as uninterested or not sufficiently humbled by the verdict,” voters could start to see him as out of touch, he added.
Rural and urban voters may have different policy priorities, and Abe has touted his economic reform as the most important part of his strategy to revive growth, after the first two steps of monetary and fiscal stimulus. Japan’s gross domestic product grew at an annualized 1.9 percent pace in the three months ended Sept. 30, slowing for the second straight quarter.
Legal challenges to the voting system have been going on for years and have been filed after elections won by both the LDP and the Democratic Party. Parliament passed a bill in July to cut the number of seats in rural prefectures by five to even out discrepancies in the value of each vote.