Court Rulings Force Abe to Confront Voter Disparities

Japanese court rulings invalidating part of December’s election because of the outsize weight of rural votes is putting pressure on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to rectify the situation with legislation.

The Hiroshima High Court yesterday for the first time declared an election invalid due to gerrymandering, voiding the result in two districts. Another court made a similar decision today. Four courts this month ruled the lower house contest, in which the value of a vote in the least populous district was worth 2.43 times that in the most populous one, unconstitutional while ratifying the results.

While the rulings are subject to appeal to the Supreme Court, they raise the risk of some lawmakers being ousted from their seats. The decisions may force Abe, who is enjoying record popularity over his economic policies, to address electoral reform before July’s upper house elections that could cement his hold on power.

“The main thing the courts have done is tell the Diet to fix it, and I think something will be done quite rapidly,” said Steven Reed, a political science professor at Chuo University in Tokyo. “This could be an image problem for Abe, whose government is doing very well. This is a glitch he needs to fix.”

While the Diet passed a bill last year aimed at reducing the maximum vote disparity, it postponed implementation. Then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda reached a deal with Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in November on legislation cutting the number of seats from rural prefectures by five, reducing the maximum disparity to below 2 to 1.

The realignment wasn’t put into place for the December vote, and a legislative panel on the issue plans to release its proposal on March 28, according to the Internal Affairs Ministry.

‘Black Cloud’

A lack of progress on electoral reform could be a “black cloud” hanging over Abe’s economic policies, Robert Feldman, head of Japan economic research at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities Co. in Tokyo, wrote in a research report today.

“Reform that corrects the overweighting of the votes of the elderly would make it easier to implement the ‘third arrow’ policies (i.e. microeconomic reforms) that are crucial to the success of Abenomics,” Feldman wrote. “Any reform that fails to correct this overweighting would raise serious concerns,” about the success of these policies, he wrote.

“Bold” monetary policy, a “flexible” fiscal stance and a growth strategy to stimulate private investment, are the three elements that Abe advocates.

‘Very Severe’

“This was a very severe decision and we take it very seriously,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters today in Tokyo about yesterday’s ruling. “Efforts are being made to regroup constituencies, including reducing the number of seats by five. The government, upon receiving the recommendations, would like to take legal actions promptly.”

The Okayama branch of the Hiroshima High Court today ruled the election in a rural district invalid and two other rulings labeled the results unconstitutional, Kyodo News reported. The Hiroshima court’s ruling yesterday voided the results of two constituencies, including that of Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.

Kishida will keep his seat until at least Nov. 26, pending an appeal from Hiroshima’s election board to the Supreme Court, the Asahi newspaper reported. Japan’s highest court in 2011 declared the 2009 lower house elections, in which the widest ratio between rural and urban votes was 2.30 to 1, “in a state of unconstitutionality” without nullifying the results.

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