TOKYO Japanese court rulings declaring December's election invalid in some districts are highlighting an electoral system that critics say gives the rural elderly excessive influence compared with younger urbanites at elections.
That inclines politicians to push policies that favor welfare and protectionism at the expense of measures to boost economic growth, the critics say, and so could act as a drag on efforts to reform the economy and lower barriers to trade.
"There is a very clear trend to over-represent older prefectures, and that means the Diet (parliament) is stacked in favor of higher spending for pensions, welfare and medical care at the expense of the interests of younger people - education, R&D and economic sustainability," said Robert Feldman, chief economist at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities in Tokyo.
"The more aggressive they get on electoral reform, the more likely they are to do pro-growth policies because you change the incentives," Feldman said.
The rulings by the Hiroshima High Court on Monday and Tuesday are expected to be reviewed by the Supreme Court and so pose no immediate threat to the three-month-old government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Experts said, however, that Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and opposition rivals were likely to do the minimum needed to satisfy the judiciary, so the bias is unlikely to be wiped out.
An electoral system that has kept the LDP in power for most of the past six decades has long been criticized for giving excess influence to rural farmers. But analysts said the gap between the clout of Japan's growing ranks of elderly and its youth was even more striking given the trend of younger Japanese to migrate to cities, leaving their elders behind.
Japan's Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that because one vote in the least populous district effectively carried the weight of more than two votes in the most populous constituency, the 2009 lower house election was held in "a state of unconstitutionality". But it declined to rule the poll as invalid to avoid political chaos.
The Hiroshima cases were among 16 suits filed across Japan after the December election, in which the maximum disparity was 2.43 to one.
On Monday, the Hiroshima court ruled the election outcome in two constituencies in the southwestern prefecture not only unconstitutional but invalid - an unprecedented judicial move. A day later, it handed down a similar ruling for a constituency in a nearby prefecture, Kyodo news agency said.
Local election boards are expected to appeal.
After the 2011 decision, lawmakers passed a bill to redress the imbalance by cutting one seat from each of five sparsely populated prefectures. But they had yet to finalize the redistricting plan when a snap election was called last year by Yoshihiko Noda, the prime minister at the time.
Even that law did not tackle what the Supreme Court had said was a fundamental problem of the lower house electoral system, the fact that each of Japan's 47 prefectures is automatically awarded at least one seat regardless of its population.
Analysts said lawmakers, who have been squabbling over other changes to the electoral system, were likely to take minimal steps in hopes the Supreme Court would be appeased.
"It's another warning and it was stronger and symbolic but the easiest course (for parliament) is to say, 'We have decided on the reform last year and when redistricting is done, it'll be fine'," said Kocihi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
"The LDP wouldn't have much incentive (for more sweeping change)," he said. "It goes to the heart of the LDP system, a paternalistic approach that says we get your vote and we take care of you. It goes against an efficient market and innovation, but it takes care of people who are not favored by the market."
(Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Neil Fullick)