LONDON — Speaking to the House of Commons on Nov. 11, 1947, Winston Churchill said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Churchill assumed that a democratic government would realize that if only in order to get re-elected, it had to pay close attention to public opinion, even though this is often difficult to gauge. Public opinion is not necessarily what the popular press thinks it is.

Some cynics have described parliamentary democracy as another name for an elected dictatorship. If one party has a majority in Parliament and is ready to use it to override all opposition, then it has become an elected dictatorship that can only be removed by a general election in which another party is elected to power. This is the case in Britain.

It may not be damaging in the long run to democratic processes if there is an opposition capable of forming an alternative government. This has generally been the case in Britain, although at the moment the Conservative Party leader, William Hague, has made it unlikely that his party will win the next election. His appeals to the worst isolationist and nationalist instincts of the British people should not succeed. This is unfortunate, as every government in a democratic country needs a credible opposition if only to ensure that there is a real alternative to their regime. Of course, an “elected dictatorship” can only claim democratic legitimacy if it is based on a fair electoral system that is not corrupted by money or threats. This can fairly be claimed for the British electoral system.

Parliamentary democracy in Japan is different from that in Britain and is less healthy than in Britain. While in Britain the present government seems to sway and bend to meet the whims of public opinion as expressed through the media, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party does not seem to “care a damn” about public opinion. If they did, they would surely not have stuck so long with a prime minister as unpopular as Yoshiro Mori, whose gaffes have made him world famous while ensuring that Japan’s political prestige in the world has fallen to one of its lowest points.

The LDP probably think that they need not worry about public opinion these days because they reckon that the opposition is divided and does not represent a credible alternative. Sadly, they are probably right. They also know that the Japanese electoral system, as a result of their own machinations, favors rural constituencies where a vote is generally worth twice as much as a vote in an urban constituency. They reckon that they can win the vast majority of seats in rural constituencies because of their success in providing lots of pork to those areas.

For decades the LDP had no need to fear that they would be turned out by the opposition, led by the Japan Socialist Party, as the latter lacked realistic policies and adequate popular support. The LDP only lost when their corrupt practices attracted so much attention that it caused a split in the party and a comparatively charismatic leader, Morihiro Hosokawa, came to the fore and managed to form a government without them. But he was soon ousted by the LDP who resented being beaten by a politician they regarded as a renegade. So determined have they been to retain power that they have maneuvered and compromised with other small parties and bought support by offering perks to those willing to sacrifice principles to achieve power.

To some observers the LDP seems like Nero fiddling while Rome burns. While the economic situation deteriorates, party leaders get together in smoke-filled rooms — not to agree on the drastic reforms Japan needs, but to bargain over the succession and which faction will get what post in the next government. They choose half-measures on the grounds that these will not offend their supporters too much.

It is hard to be other than contemptuous about the LDP’s coalition partners. The Conservatives hardly count and are no different from the LDP, but “New” Komeito does matter for the moment. It appears to be able to direct its supporters in constituencies where there are no Komeito candidates to vote for the LDP, even though its alliance with the LDP is clearly one of convenience. Komeito is supposed to have an ethically based policy and to be wedded to “clean government.” Such pretensions seem hypocritical and Komeito behavior appears to be based on a cynical determination to cling to the trappings of power.

I used to think that, although for decades Japan was ruled by a single group of factions, the group stayed in power because in its maneuvers it kept an eye on public opinion and pushed through quite radical changes to meet popular aspirations. The LDP, some 50 years ago, was authoritarian and conservative in its social policies. Many older LDP members probably regret that their governments modified Japanese economic and social policies as they did, but the changes were a realistic response to what was needed to ensure re-election and to enable them to retain power. Unfortunately, however, they have tended to interpret public opinion in narrow, self-interested ways and have generally failed to educate opinion on where Japan’s real national interests lie. If they had recognized the challenges facing Japan and been willing to take risks — involving some sacrifice of particular interests — the country might not have had to suffer the lost decade of the 1990s.

Many Japanese, especially among the younger generation, recognize that a real revolution in attitudes is required if Japan is to escape from its current mess. There has to be substantial political reform in which consumers and urban voters are not discriminated against. There has to be fundamental changes in Japanese management so that bright younger men and women are given the opportunity to inject new ideas and methods into companies, which must at the same time improve their corporate governance. If companies and banks cannot adapt then they should be allowed to close or forced to the wall. This will be tragic for many, but they should remember that their sad fate is the result of the complacency and conservatism of their seniors.

The greatest danger from the present political impasse is that the Japanese electorate will be so disillusioned by politics that they will not bother to vote or if they do will feel that the opposition is not a real alternative and that they must vote for the incompetent and corrupt devil they know (i.e., the LDP) rather than for a divided opposition, perhaps including the extreme left, who may be just as — or even more — incapable of tackling pressing Japanese political and economic issues.

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