When I first read that the Japanese coalition government had decided to force through a bill to reduce the number of seats elected by proportional representation, my first thought was, since they had a majority of votes in both Houses for this measure and as democracy generally implies majority rules, the government was behaving democratically. But further consideration has increased my doubts about the democratic nature of the government’s behavior.

This was not an ordinary bill. Although it is not strictly a constitutional issue, it does have constitutional implications. If the government can force through a bill to reduce the number of seats elected by proportional representation, what is to prevent them from pushing through proposals that would further reduce the ability of smaller parties to be represented in the Diet? Could they not also ram through measures to alter the composition of single-member constituencies so that supporters of the parties in power can win an even larger proportion of seats? The average number of voters in rural constituencies remains well below that in urban constituencies and everyone knows that the Liberal Democratic Party gets its main support from farmers and rural lobbies. So I began to think that the government’s behavior did pose a potential threat to democratic institutions in Japan.

My concern was increased by the fact that the opposition parties were apparently given little opportunity to debate the issues involved. The Democratic Party of Japan is reported to favor in principle a reduction in the number of Diet seats, but they were not given a fair and proper chance to present their case. I can well understand why they decided in the circumstances to boycott the Diet. But this may well not have been a wise decision. Would it not have been better, in public-relations terms at least, to use the Diet forum on every possible occasion to question the government’s motives and behavior? This would give more publicity for their case and would seem to be a more democratic approach.

It is hard to avoid taking a cynical view of the behavior of the Japanese government in this case. Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the Liberal Party, had said his Liberal Party would resign from the coalition government if the bill was not passed. This would have forced an early election, something neither the LDP nor their partners wanted.

The sole objective, it would seem, was to ensure that Obuchi’s government remained in power. Obuchi, it is said, has set his heart on leading Japan at the G8 summit to be held in Okinawa this summer and he is apparently prepared to use any means available to remain prime minister, even if the means are not in accordance with democratic principles as we know them. I hope that such accusations are untrue and that he will recognize that in appeasing Ozawa and his Liberal Party in this way he is playing with fire.

Students of Japanese history know how Japanese politicians in prewar days played into the hands of extremists by their cynical power brokering. There is no militarist threat these days, but some extremists are still around. The greater danger, however, is that political machinations will cause the electorate to lose interest in politics and conclude that politicians are only interested in playing dirty power games that should be treated with the disdain that they deserve. But this would be dangerous for democracy in Japan.

The majority of the electorate in Japan, according to opinion polls, no longer supports Obuchi and his coalition. The problem for them is that the opposition parties do not look attractive or capable of producing a viable alternative government. They seem to many outsiders to be at odds with one another and just as faction ridden as the LDP.

It would, however, be a mistake, in my view, to underestimate the possibilities for change in Japanese politics. The LDP’s hold on power was broken after the Recruit scandal. The administration of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa was sadly short-lived, but it did accomplish some necessary political reforms. Now it looks as though the coalition government is trying to turn back the clock and entrench themselves in power. The Japanese electorate can and should make it clear that they will not accept any undermining of Japanese democratic institutions.

It will not be easy to get this point across to parliamentary candidates in the next general election. Voters should press candidates to give clear and written undertakings that they will not agree to further changes in electoral laws unless these have been fully debated and can be seen to represent public opinion. Any candidate who does not give a solemn undertaking to uphold democratic principles should be publicly exposed and rejected by the electorate.

It is also, in my view, important for the future health of Japanese democracy that politicians should be forced at the next general election to abide by the same rules about accepting entertainment and contributions as are to apply to civil servants. They should also be forced to declare all their affiliations so that the public can be made aware of the extent to which Japanese politicians are being swayed by lobbyists for minority interests.

Japan now needs parliamentary candidates with the courage to take on the lobbyists and reassert political ethics. I hope that by the time the next election is called there will be a sufficient number of such candidates to defeat the old guard, who seem not to have learned the lessons of their defeat after the last lot of scandals. Is it not time to pack off the old hacks to their country homes to enjoy their wealth and cultivate their bonsai, leaving the field open to a new generation who believe firmly in upholding democracy and the national interest as a whole, and not just sectoral interests such as the farmers? Protection for one group can seriously damage the interest of consumers and other sections of the Japanese community.

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