LONDON — How democratic are the world’s so-called democratic countries? Can there be totally fair elections?

The U.S. presidential election raises some serious issues about democratic rights and the fairness of electoral processes.

U.S. presidential elections are complicated by the electoral-college system, which is part of the series of checks and balances enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, designed in part to protect states’ rights. State legislatures choose their electors to vote for the candidate who gains the most votes in that state.

The number of electors assigned to each state is supposed to reflect the population of that state, but it is pretty “rough and ready,” and can, as was the case this year, result in the candidate who wins the popular vote still losing the election.

There will surely be a debate in the United States about a possible reform of the system, but if this involved constitutional amendments they would have to be approved by the states. Even if the amendments had popular support, there would be a long drawn-out process and the outcome would be doubtful.

The electoral-college problem is not the only issue. Was the system of voting adopted in Florida fair? Were all the votes correctly counted in some of the counties? Can the reading of votes be left to a machine? It could be argued that the machine ensures that human errors are avoided, but if some electors through no fault of their own did not punch the ballot paper properly is it fair to exclude their votes? And what about the counting of postal votes? Were they all counted correctly? There must be some doubts on all these issues.

Some allegations of electoral fraud have been made. It is difficult to know how far such allegations are justified, but a significant number of voters especially in Florida feel aggrieved.

The American election has rightly highlighted electoral problems, which are not confined to the U.S. One serious issue is that voters may become disillusioned with the electoral process and the number of voters who simply ignore the polls or decide to abstain on the grounds that it is really not worth the trouble to vote will increase. In Australia, voting is compulsory and abstainers without valid reasons for failing to vote can be prosecuted. There are arguments both for and against forcing people to vote. Countries that have not adopted such rules might be sensible to debate the pros and cons.

Another aspect raised by the presidential election is whether direct elections of heads of state and heads of government are the best way of determining who shall lead. Is it better to have at least some element of indirect election, e.g., through an electoral college? In Britain the queen appoints as prime minister the leader of the party that commands a majority in the House of Commons. This at least ensures that the head of government has a majority in the legislature, something that is often not the case in the U.S., and can lead to conflicts between the executive and the legislature.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the British method favors an elected dictatorship of the party in power.

In Japan, the two Houses of the Diet elect the prime minister. It can be awkward when the House of Representatives elects one leader and the House of Counselors another, although in that case the person chosen by the Lower House becomes prime minister, thus negating the vote in the Upper House.

Direct elections of heads of government could favor populists who may not have the gravitas or the policies that a country needs. In Israel, the prime minister is directly elected. This has complicated rather than eased the way toward a settlement of the outstanding Arab-Israeli conflict.

In Japan, Yasuhiro Nakasone used to argue strongly for the direct election of the prime minister. Certainly if Japan were to adopt such a system, Yoshiro Mori, whose popularity is at rock bottom and who commands no respect abroad, would surely fail to be elected. This should be a plus for Japan. Such a system might help Japan to produce leaders with some charisma and, more importantly, leaders willing and able to expound policies. It would not, however, necessarily reduce the role of money in Japanese politics unless very strict controls on electoral expenditure were promulgated and effectively enforced.

The allocation of votes in the U.S. electoral college is not equal; nor is it necessarily fair. That is also true of the allocation of seats in the senate and to a much less extent in Congress. But Japan would not be justified in criticizing the U.S. system. Japanese constituencies are notoriously unequal. Votes in country districts are generally worth twice as much as in urban constituencies despite the fact that urban constituencies provide a much higher proportion of Japan’s GDP than country districts. The LDP and its allies moreover recently manipulated the system to favor themselves, riding rough shod over the opposition.

Even more important in Japan is the question of how far Japanese elections are fairly conducted. Political observers note the importance of the electoral base of supporters, whom members of Parliament are at pains to cultivate through personal contacts and favors.

In the days of the Meiji Constitution, intimidation of voters and electoral fraud probably occurred fairly frequently. In recent years, there have been many fewer accusations of this kind although “bribing” the electors through the political pork-barrel has been developed to a fine art, e.g., during the prime ministership of Kakuei Tanaka, and has been maintained by corrupt politicians, such as the late Shin Kanemaru. Even now a former construction minister recently admitted accepting bribes from a construction company.

Any of us who feel tempted to scoff at or deplore the electoral mess in the U.S. presidential elections need to be sure that our own houses are in order!

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