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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:27 10/24/2008
October 24, 2008

On Increasing Political Power of Senior Voters in Japan

Fumio Ohtake (Professor, Osaka University)

These days more and more political issues are being related to senior citizens such as the problem of "vanishing public pension" in 2007. This particular problem triggered a political change leading to the loss of the majority of the ruling coalition in the upper house and the deadlock situation in the Diet with the lower house still controlled by the ruling coalition. In April, 2008, the medical care system for senior citizens 75 or older took effect, but turned out to be so unpopular that then prime minister Fukuda lost his public support significantly, leading to his abrupt resignation in September. In other words, Japanese politics seems to be crucially dependent on those issues that are directly involving senior citizens such as public pension and medical care. In fact, these are the key issues in the upcoming general election as well.

Behind this phenomenon, there is the trend of a rapidly aging society, where the proportion of senior people in all voters is rising sharply and, furthermore, the voting rate is higher among the elderly than young people. As a result, older generations tend to have relatively strong political power, enabling them to have their preferences reflected in policymaking more easily than younger generations. The standard framework in political economic analysis has it that, according to the "median voter theory," optimum public expenditure can be determined by the preferences of the median voter. In Japan, the median voter has been aging, and more public expenditure tends to be geared to senior citizens accordingly. If, for example, older generations prefer more spending in social security, but not in compulsory education, then public expenditure in social security tends to increase, while that in education tends to decrease.

In addition, the fact that older generations have higher voting rates than young generation means that the median voter will be aging faster than the speed of demographic aging process in Japan. Let us confirm this tendency with some data below.

According to a published study on voting rates by age bracket, it used to be that the voting rates were highest, above 80%, among voters in their 40s through 60s, followed by 70% for the 30s, and the lowest being 60% for the 20s, before 1990. The voting rate for the elderly in their 70s was around 70% all along. Since 1990, however, the voting rates among young people in the 20s and the 30s have declined sharply, going down to 40-50% or so. On the other hand, about 80% is the voting rate of elderly people above 60 years old these days.

The declining voting rates among young working generations have led to the faster aging speed of voters than the pure effect of aging population in Japan. In fact, before 1980, younger generations below 39 years old had the highest weight among all voters. However, in 1980s and 90s, the highest weight shifted to older generations of the 40s and the 50s, and further to the age of 60 and older since 2003.

In other words, the "dankai" (baby boomer) generation has been politically most powerful as voters all along. It seems that the dankai generation has been trying to maintain its distinctly high voting rate, precisely because they know that they are the most populous and thus the most influential generation in politics. As this generation is now entering into the 60s, the median age of voters, currently around the mid-50s, will soon reach and surpass 60 years old.

In view of this ever-increasing political power among older population, it is important to develop a system that can prevent policy biases in favor of the elderly, who could shift fiscal burden onto younger or future generations. One such idea may be to give more political power to the parents of children under 20 years old, for instance, by allocating voting rights in proportion to the number of children that they have.

(The original Japanese article appeared in the October 25, 2008 issue of Weekly Toyo Keizai)

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