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LONDON — Parliamentary institutions in Britain and Japan currently have one thing in common — they lack an effective and credible opposition. The absence of opposition can allow governments with large majorities to ignore public opinion, at least in the short term, and behave in an autocratic way, knowing that the only curb on their activities is the need to win the next general election. Under these circumstances, parliamentary democracy is liable to become an elected dictatorship in which the only threat to the government comes from within the ruling party or coalition.

In Britain, the Conservative (or Tory) Party, since the defeat of the last Conservative government led by John Major, has failed to produce a leader capable of not only uniting the party but also appealing to the electorate as a whole. They first tried William Hague, who was good at scoring points in Parliament but not much else. They then selected Iain Duncan Smith (known as IDS). One critic has described him as someone who would make quite a good chairman of a golf club.

Lacking charisma and punch, IDS tries to be the quiet man of politics who will bypass the divisive problem of the party’s attitude to Europe by ignoring it, concentrating instead on issues of greater immediate interest to the electorate — in particular, the improvement of public services. This is not a bad idea, but unfortunately the Conservatives are a quarrelsome lot who, though lacking power, indulge in petty jealousies. IDS has seemed ham-fisted and devious in dealing with such infighting.

The party remains just as divided as ever over Europe as well as on domestic policies. The “little Englanders” who think that abroad is horrible remain Thatcherite in domestic policies and cannot see that their only hope of regaining power is to appeal to the middle ground, which unfortunately for them has been claimed by “‘New Labour.” Sensible Conservatives recognize that they have no hope of defeating Labour at the next general election and that they must try to find a new and effective leader as well as more convincing policies.

The comparatively small party of Liberal Democrats in Parliament, led by the relatively young and charismatic Charles Kennedy, would like to supplant the Conservatives as the leading opposition party. But the “Lib Dems” can’t make up their mind whether to emphasize libertarian issues, such as opposing the autocratic instincts of the current Labour Government, or to undermine the government by appealing to the leftwing and ultra-egalitarian instincts of “Old Labour.”

The Labour government in Britain sees the strongest opposition to its policies in the media, which does its best to expose “the control freaks” in government ranks and the perceived misuse of power by ministers. This has led to government attempts to “guide” the media via “controlled leaks” that in practice undermine Parliament, where policies should be announced and debated.

Parliamentary processes should provide an opportunity for members of the opposition and the government party to clarify and criticize government policies. Unfortunately, many Labour Party members have misused their position to ask flattering questions of government ministers in the hope that their sycophancy may lead to an offer of a government post. Such behavior has been particularly noticeable in this Parliament. It only increases popular disdain for politicians and undermines the democratic process.

“Old Labour” elements in the party have not been totally annihilated and can still annoy the government, although for the moment they are not a threat. But they are probably the Conservative opposition’s best friends, by showing how awful Labour Party policies could become for the middle-of-the-road electorate.

If the opposition in Britain is ineffective, its position in Japan is worse. The Democratic Party of Japan is at best “a rainbow coalition” of malcontents covering a spectrum of opinion, from old leftwing socialists to conservative and nationalist elements. No wonder they can’t get their act together and offer a convincing alternative to the present government.

DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama, who has failed to produce coherent alternative policies or make any real impact, is under pressure to resign. Naoto Kan, who was the party’s secretary general, aims to succeed Hatoyama, but this might accelerate moves by conservative and nationalist elements to break away and possibly support a new nationalist party formed under the leadership of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

Only the Communists seem to know what they want, but there is, fortunately, no likelihood that the party could win power under the present electoral system.

There has been some effective opposition demonstrated by individuals such as Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka, but the impact has been confined to local issues.

The main threat at present to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi comes from within his own Liberal Democratic Party. Opponents have recently become more vocal, and seem determined to ensure that he is not re-elected as party president next year. A number of prominent party members think it is their turn to take over the helm, although none of them would seem at this stage to have much popular appeal.

Talk in the “smoke-filled rooms” of political bosses in Tokyo is now apparently about who will succeed Koizumi and who can ensure that money from lobby groups continues to flow to “the chosen few.” Koizumi could undermine these cabals by dissolving the Diet, but he needs a party to lead. He also needs more credible policies to deal with deflation and the banking crisis. Japan and Japanese society may be changing, but the pace, to many outside observers, seems painfully slow, consisting of at best two steps forward and 1 1/2 steps back.

The Japanese media are critical, but do not seem to provide as effective an opposition to the government as the British media. The “kisha club” system and the cozy relationship between news sources and the press often seem to stifle attempts to expose malfeasance.

It is important for the survival of healthy parliamentary democracy in Japan that a credible opposition, capable of offering a real alternative government, emerges soon. If it does not and the LDP continues to play party games like children saying “it’s my turn now,” democracy will be undermined and nationalist elements that could undermine parliamentary institutions might emerge.

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