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National Perspective | International Outlook

Other Democracies Cast Wary Eye on Election

'With these irregularities, Florida is starting to look like the Philippines,' one Japanese observer says.

November 15, 2000|JIM MANN | Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

TOKYO — Is the dispute over America's presidential election beneficial or harmful to the cause of democracy around the world?

It's good up to a point, because it has shown democracy in action in all its transparent, nail-biting glory. President Clinton caught the spirit of this positive view last weekend when he said the drama in Florida demonstrates the "vitality" of America's election process.

But the stalemate may turn into a disaster--not just for the country's international standing, but for the cause of democracy elsewhere--if it persists into prolonged court battles and unending challenges to the legitimacy of the election.

Many other countries have democratic traditions that are weaker and less historically rooted than in the United States. What happens in the U.S. now will be watched and perhaps imitated over the coming years in these other, more precarious democracies.

The United States enjoys safeguards that other countries do not. The U.S. armed forces stay out of elections, even disputed ones. The court system is not under the thumb of any one political leader or party.

In the future, will the world be able to persuade a leader such as the Philippines' Ferdinand E. Marcos or Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic to give up power after an election? Or will such a leader pursue endless recounts and legal challenges in a judiciary he controls--insisting all the while that he's merely acting like the Americans?

Tokyo provides an interesting vantage point from which to view the U.S. presidential election and its aftermath.

In formal terms, of course, Japan now has a democracy, imposed upon it during the American occupation half a century ago. And yet the Japanese realize the reality of their politics is far from democratic.

Japan's prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, got his job last spring in a secret meeting of leaders of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party after Mori's predecessor suffered a stroke.

Will the last week's postelection turmoil lead to a sudden sense of crisis overseas and a loss of faith in America? Not immediately, if Japan is any indication. In recent days, America's closest ally in Asia has seemed unruffled by the Florida stalemate.

"This [political uncertainty] isn't new. After all, over the years, people in Japan have seen Americans go through everything from the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974 to the impeachment of Bill Clinton," says scholar Herbert P. Bix, a resident of Japan and author of the book, "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan."

For most of the last year, the Japanese have been trying to calculate how the U.S. elections might affect them.

Many Japanese seem to have concluded that, on the whole, they would be better off with Texas Gov. George W. Bush and the Republicans--largely because Bush has repeatedly stressed the importance of America's relations with allies such as Japan.

By contrast, the outgoing Clinton administration seemed to place China at the center of its Asia policy and to take Japan for granted.

"Compared to the current administration, Bush's policy would be much better for us," says retired Adm. Sumihiko Kawamura, who now runs his own foreign policy institute here. The Bush foreign policy team, he says, "places much more emphasis on Japan's strategic role."

Yet beneath the surface, there also seems to be some uneasiness that a new Bush administration, in trying to beef up the U.S. security alliance with Japan, might seek too much change too fast from Tokyo.

The Bush foreign policy team might push for Japan to pay more money for its defense, or to ask the Japanese military to assume a more powerful role than the Japanese public is willing to tolerate.

"If [Vice President Al] Gore wins, we'll just continue our current, friendly relations," asserts one senior Japanese official, passing lightly over Japan's past grievances with the Clinton administration. "It's hard to say who [Bush or Gore] is better for Japan in the long run."

Late last week, some Japanese argued that the postelection dispute in the U.S. underscores how much more open the American political system is than their own.

"Your people have really participated in the election of a president. In this country, Mori was chosen as prime minister [in April], but the decision was made by five people in a smoke-filled room," independent political analyst Hiroshi Takaku says.

Takaku pointed out that in U.S. politics, almost everything becomes public--even details of the famous phone conversation in which Gore told Bush he had decided not to concede the election. By contrast, he said, no one knows what Japan's LDP leaders say to one another in private.

This week, as the wrangling in the U.S. dragged on, other Japanese became more critical of the American election controversy.

"These events are very badly received in this part of the world," Tokyo University political scientist Takashi Inoguchi said. "Bush and Gore aren't standing tall. They look like our own politicians.

"People think, 'My God, the United States is like us.' And with all these election irregularities, Florida is starting to look like the Philippines."

When people in Asia start comparing the American political system with that of the Philippines, you know that Uncle Sam's august stature is being whittled down.

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