Elections are the lifeblood of democracy. They represent an awesome empowerment — the right of citizens to peacefully overthrow their government and choose another.

The prime minister called an election. He submitted his government to the judgment of the people. The election was held. The people expressed its will. A new government was formed in accordance with it.

This is democracy, the democratic ideal in action. It is what masses of brave and determined protesters in Hong Kong risked life, limb and freedom to obtain from their undemocratic government — one that tenaciously, sometimes violently, denies that ideal.

“We want normal elections!” the Hong Kong protesters cried while Japan’s myriad political parties were courting voters with promises, blandishments and slogans — the very stuff of “normal elections.” The protesters didn’t exactly say, “Give us what’s going on right now in Japan!” — but if they had, would it have been out of place?

Somehow — yes, it would have. The model democratic election handed a two-thirds-plus majority to a governing coalition some of whose policies — enhanced government secrecy, more broadly defined powers of arrest and imprisonment, a fortified military with an expanding mission, nuclear power plant reactivation, state-supervised patriotic education, Constitutional revisions that would stress duties over rights — seem brusquely at odds with both public opinion and democratic principles.

The election, however, was about none of these things. The election, declared Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the outset, was about “Abenomics,” the eponymous economic revival plan that, for all its bold claims and early impact, stands accused of making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Japan’s sinking into recession just as the campaign got going should have taken some of the wind out of Abe’s sails, but evidently it didn’t, and he coasted to one of the most impressive electoral victories of the postwar era.

Impressive — with qualifications, one being a distressingly low voter turnout. When only 52.66 percent of eligible voters vote — a postwar low — nearly half don’t. Hong Kong activists take note: this is what a mature democracy is liable to sink to. Is this what you’re fighting for?

Another qualification is the morning-after hangover. No sooner were the results in than Japan as a whole seemed to be asking itself, “What have I done?” An indication is an Asahi Shimbun poll conducted in the immediate aftermath. Question: “Do you rate the Abe administration highly?” Only 11 percent answered “yes,” with 72 percent saying none of the opposition parties offered them anything worth voting for.

Is this democracy? The Dutch scholar Karel van Wolferen, best known for a 1989 bestseller titled “The Enigma of Japanese Power,” argued in a recent article in the weekly Shukan Post that Japan’s democracy has always been something of a sham. Elections are held and parliamentary seats distributed accordingly, but who really governs? “Status quo junkies,” is van Wolferen’s sardonic answer. Behind the elected representatives stand the unelected bureaucrats — puppets and puppet-masters respectively, in his view, whose dread of change borders on pathological and leaves Japan a peculiarly ineffective actor on a world stage dominated by more flexible and adroit developed nations.

Nothing new so far — he and others have been saying this for decades. His attack on Japan’s media may not be new either. “The media’s fundamental role,” he writes, “is to keep an eye on power and protect democracy, but Japan’s major newspapers and its public broadcaster, NHK, do precisely the opposite — they make it impossible for the Japanese public to understand what’s really going on, domestically and internationally.

“Symbolic is the frequency with which Abe has dined, since the start of his administration, with top TV and newspaper executives and editors.”

The news media exists, he maintains, to criticize the government, not to befriend it. Power’s friendship turns power’s critics into power’s lapdogs.

New or not, recent developments give van Wolferen’s barbs fresh sting. One only has to recall the notorious comment of NHK chairman Katsuto Momii upon his accession last January: “It would not do for us to say ‘left’ when the government is saying ‘right.'”

An unusual letter issued to major media outlets by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party enjoining “fair, just and neutral coverage” of the election, with detailed instructions as to what “fair” means, was widely seen as threatening by news organizations still digesting the implications of a new official secrets law authorizing stiff prison sentences for journalists who cross an ill-defined line. A week into the campaign the Asahi Shimbun was noting how little TV coverage the election was drawing — roughly one-third as much as the 2012 campaign. True, other matters arose with their own claims on media attention — the death of gangster movie star Bunta Sugahara, for instance. Still, an election is an election. Boring and irritating it may be, but democracy accords it a certain dignity. If an election is going on and the media’s eyes are elsewhere, it’s a bad sign, whether the reason for the distraction is fear or public apathy.

The abject collapse of the leading opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (which governed from 2009 to 2012 and is widely perceived to have blown it), was reflected in the number of candidates it fielded — 198, its fewest ever, not enough to fill even close to half the 475-seat Lower House, even if every one of its candidates (instead of 73, versus the LDP’s 291) had won. What were those voters to do who don’t want to go where the LDP is taking Japan?

“My heart wasn’t in it, but I voted Communist,” one voter, clearly shaken, told the Asahi. She was far from alone. The Japanese Communist Party won 21 seats, up from eight. JCP leader Kazuo Ishii was emboldened to declare a mini political revolution: “Now the main confrontation is between the JCP and the LDP.”

That makes liberals and centrists cringe. “Communist” suggests Lenin, Stalin, Mao — none of them exemplary democrats. The JCP is not of their stamp. Inaugurated in 1922, it was the only political party in the 1930s and ’40s to oppose Japanese militarism. It broke with the Soviet Union in the 1960s and rejects violent revolution. Still, it is free to change its name and yet doesn’t. If voters wonder why, who can blame them?

Does democracy have a future? Does it deserve one? Can democracy — especially a tepid democracy like Japan’s, with shallow roots, no credible opposition and an apathetic electorate that grants such overwhelming power to a government so little to its taste — grapple with the new problems of a dawning age?

Similar questions arose in the late 1920s. German, Italian and Japanese fascisms were among the answers. We’re living in dangerous times.

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.


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