LONDON — Britain and Japan have prime ministers who have not been endorsed by the electorate in a general election. Both are hanging on to power and argue that it is their right as prime minister to choose the date for the next election. Under our constitutions this is a valid claim, but is it in accordance with the maintenance of democracy in our two countries?
Public opinion polls show that neither prime minister has the confidence of a majority of the electorate. Indeed, both have aroused the anger and the contempt of many. There have been widespread calls in both countries for early general elections. They only remain in office because their parties are unwilling to throw them out, fearing that at a general election their party will lose.
Under our systems of government, members of Parliament almost invariably vote with the parties to which they belong. So, our democracy is in effect an elected dictatorship where the rights of citizens are protected not so much by elected parliamentarians as by appointed judges and the scrutiny of the media.
In Britain this scrutiny has been strengthened by the freedom of information acts and by widespread resistance to government attempts to limit traditional freedoms. The recent scandals over parliamentary expenses, on which I commented in my April 28 article, were only revealed after attempts to keep parliamentary expense claims secret were rejected — when it became clear that the courts would not condone such attempts and when more farsighted politicians realized that secrecy would do more damage to the image of Parliament than the revelation of misdemeanors by some.
My April 28 article was written before the most serious cases had been revealed. The image of the Conservative (Tory) opposition has been damaged by a claims for absurd projects such as building a duck island and cleaning a moat at a country estate as well as by false or exaggerated claims for second homes. The Labour Party even had egregious cases in which there were two claims for refunds of mortgage interest that had already been paid off.
Both parties have taken steps to ensure that the worst offenders stand down at the next election. It has taken a long time for some politicians to realize the extent of public anger and disillusionment with politicians generally. This has been made manifest by a decline in turnout for the local and European elections June 4. The Labour Party suffered the hardest hit in these elections, coming in third in votes cast after the Conservatives and Liberals. But none of the parties can afford to be complacent.
It is not surprising that in these circumstances there has been increased discussion of electoral reform. One proposal that has gained some support has been that the right of prime ministers to decide election dates be abolished and replaced by fixed parliamentary terms of four years. Another is for a means of subjecting members of Parliament who misbehave or neglect their duties to recall if 5 percent of the electorate sign a petition.
Another supported by David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader who is calling for the number of seats in Parliament to be reduced, is for greater authority on the part of the legislature to keep tabs on the executive. This would involve giving greater powers to parliamentary committees whose members would be elected freely by members — not nominated by parties as at present. Yet, none of the parties has shown any real inclination to limit the powers of party whips, whom they regard as essential to ensure the smooth passage of legislation.
Some of these proposals will probably be adopted in some form or other if only to appease public opinion. Certainly all are agreed that parliamentary expenses should be open to outside scrutiny and the abuses curbed.
More problematic will be proposals for electoral reform such as adoption of an element of proportional representation along the lines of that in Germany. So far the two main parties have opposed proportional representation in elections to the House of Commons, although they have accepted it for election to the Scottish and European parliaments.
One argument against proportional representation is that it would lead to weaker coalition governments as it would favor smaller parties including the Liberals. It is also argued that proportional representation would mean that local interests were not properly represented by members of Parliament from specific geographical constituencies. While both arguments have some validity, the main objection seems to be that proportional representation would damage the interests of the two main parties and limit their ability to wield power.
Meanwhile, a proposal for transferable votes arouses the objection that it would be too complicated for the electorate to understand, but this view is patronizing and probably underestimates the common sense of the electorate.
David Cameron, the Tory leader, has recently increased pressure for an early general election in Britain. Prime Minister Gordon Brown argues that it would damage the country at a time of economic crisis and parliamentary scandal, but the real reason he opposes a general election now is that he knows that the Labour Party would lose.
Prime Minister Taro Aso no doubt fears the same thing in Japan. So, we end up with a democratic deficit in the two countries and have to put up with the elected dictatorships of which we cannot rid ourselves until general elections are called by the two men who were not chosen in general elections, and who are determined to cling to power even though they do not have the support of a majority in the country.
Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.