The view that the prime minister should be elected by popular vote is gaining ground. Ironically, it is Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori himself — one of the most unpopular prime ministers in memory — that is contributing to this groundswell of opinion. It is not just ordinary citizens, academics and business executives that are calling for the direct election of the nation’s chief executive. Many politicians, including members of Mr. Mori’s Liberal Democratic Party, have joined the chorus.

Early this month, in a stunning jab at Mr. Mori, LDP members of the Osaka prefectural assembly proposed a direct voting system. Behind this move is the public’s growing cynicism toward politics. Contributing to the public mistrust is the perception that representative democracy in Japan is not working as it should. That is part of the reason why residents throughout the nation are increasingly demanding referendums.

Beyond that, however, politicians in favor of a popularly elected prime minister seem to have ulterior motives. Some are apparently trying to stir up public debate on constitutional revision by advocating direct prime ministerial elections. It is also likely that political parties see a popular vote as an opportunity to prepare for the future reorganization of politics.

One thing is certain: Near paralysis in national politics is creating a yearning for a strong leader, not only among the people but in political circles as well. The merits of a popular election are plausible. Proponents say, for example, that direct democracy puts politics in the hands of the people, that the prime minister can exercise greater leadership, and that the people bear greater responsibility for politics.

However, these arguments skirt, wittingly or not, important basic questions. Perhaps the most important — and the most controversial — is how the direct election of the prime minister would relate to the Emperor system. A popularly elected prime minister, unlike one elected by the Diet, would be more like a president or head of state. The Constitution, however, doesn’t say who is the head of state. There is no established interpretation of this question, either inside or outside the academic community.

Over the past century or so, Japan’s body politic has maintained harmony, more or less, between constitutional monarchy and the parliamentary Cabinet system. If the nation were to shift to a de facto republican system of government, questions would inevitably arise as to the legal status of the Emperor and the popularly elected prime minister.

Another question is how direct balloting would affect representative democracy. It is not an easy question, but this much is certain: The present parliamentary Cabinet system would be abolished. That raises troubling possibilities. One is that party politics, already fraught with problems, would go into further decline. Another is that there would be constant conflict between the Diet and the prime minister.

Many politicians favor a shift to direct voting, whether or not they are aware of these and other potential problems. In a poll of Diet members taken last autumn by a group of representatives from the academic and business communities, as many as 54 percent supported the view that the prime minister should be elected by the people, not by their elected representatives.

Still another question that must be carefully weighed is whether the direct voting system would lead to political reform. The answer is anything but clear. There is no assurance that politics will regain vigor under a popularly elected prime minister. It is naive to think that a leader elected directly by the people can always exercise strong leadership.

Some foreign democracies offer useful precedents. Britain maintains a representative system of government, but it has produced strong leaders like Mrs. Margaret Thatcher. Israel recently decided to abolish its system of direct prime ministerial elections; it had been the only nation in the world to choose the prime minister through direct balloting.

The lesson here should be clear enough: The basic reason for political dysfunction lies not so much in the voting system as in the political parties and politicians that use it. Simple adoption of a direct vote for prime minister will not automatically lead to a sweeping political reform and establishment of political leadership with great accountability. Any systemic change will not achieve that goal unless it is preceded by a revolution in the consciousness of parties, politicians and the voters. And, we should not forget that the change discussed now is premised on a revision of the Constitution — a daunting challenge for any political group.

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