When, Well, 'Mistakes Were Made'

Ways of Blame

Consider this scenario: Midterm elections have been a disaster for the US president's political party.

Voters unexpectedly strip it of control of the Senate. The party still rules the House of Representatives, though. And the White House is safe: The presidency wasn't on the ballot.

Still, a tearful chief executive makes an appearance in the pressroom, takes full responsibility for the defeat, professes a lack of ability, and resigns.

"Oh, right," you say. "That would happen. And then pigs will fly over the Capitol, and lions and lambs will lunch together all over town."

But in essence, that is what has just happened in Japan. Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto resigned July 14 after his Liberal Democratic Party suffered humiliating losses in national parliamentary elections.

The fact that such a resignation would seem surprising in the US, yet was expected in Japan, speaks volumes about the difference in how the two nations hold political leaders accountable for their actions. And it points out how societies adapt the forms of democracy itself to reflect deep-seated cultural needs.

US democracy isn't more authentic than that of the Japanese, the French, or the Germans. It's just different.

"Each system has its advantages and disadvantages," says R. Kent Weaver, a governmental studies expert at the Brookings Institution here.

In Japan, Prime Minister Hashimoto's fate was sealed from the moment results began rolling in from the July 12 ballot for the upper house of parliament.

Before the vote, Hashimoto's LDP held 61 upper house seats. Afterwards, it held 44. That figure still constitutes a plurality. The next most powerful party in the upper house is the up-and-coming Democratic Party, with 27 seats.

And the LDP still has a commanding majority in the far more powerful lower house of parliament, which chooses the prime minister in Japan's parliamentary system.

But in some respects Japan has been a virtual one-party state since the end of World War II, with the LDP in charge. For voters to rebuke it so sharply, even in a relatively unimportant election, means there is powerful dissatisfaction at the Japanese grass roots over the nation's dismal economic performance.

In an Asian society where "face" is important, such a rebuke would have personal consequences for any leader. Thus Hashimoto had to step up, apologize, and resign, a ritual known in Japan as "taking responsibility."

LDP leaders know perfectly well that they all share real responsibility for the lack of action on economic reforms. But they understandably do not want to go forward toward further elections saddled with a leader who has become a symbol of defeat.

"The resignation reflects a lack of real support for Hashimoto within his party," says Mikiso Hane, a professor of Asian studies at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.

Margaret Thatcher was deposed as Britain's prime minister in 1990 under somewhat similar circumstances. Her own Tory Party ousted her over concern she would lead them to defeat in the next general election.

In parliamentary systems such as Japan's and Great Britain's, the executive leader has to command the confidence of a majority of the legislature to remain in office.

That's not the case in the United States, of course. The Founding Fathers chose to elect the executive leader separately, to provide more stability.

Presidential-style democracy is an older form of the genre than parliamentarianism, and thus more closely draws on such historical antecedents as monarchies.

"US democratic institutions are quite old ones by world standards," says Mr. Weaver.

By staggering its election cycles, the US insulates its leader somewhat from direct accountability to the voters. The Founding Fathers had a fear of faction and of swings in voter passion, after all.

"That's why senators weren't originally directly elected," points out Alan Levine, a political scientist at American University in Washington. "The president is still, technically, not directly elected."

It took an amendment to the Constitution (the 17th) to take election of senators out of the hands of state legislators. The Electoral College still meets after every presidential election and casts votes for chief executive.

The disadvantage of this system is that discredited leaders can remain in office. President Hoover, who puttered ineffectively about the White House following the onset of the Depression, is one example.

Some forms of democracy combine the relative stability of a president with the accountability of a parliament.

In most parliamentary systems, a majority vote of "no confidence" topples the chief. But in Germany, the opposition must propose both a vote of no confidence and an alternative leader.

Then there's the de Gaulle example. Though independently elected president of France in the US style, he threatened to resign in 1969 if the voters defeated his proposed constitutional reforms in a referendum.

The referendum lost. Charles de Gaulle kept his word, and resigned.

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