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Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Foot-in-mouth disease spreads among pols

LONDON -- Foot-in-mouth politicians are a major cause of public disillusionment with politics. Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, not only has a bad reputation for attempting to interfere in the legal process, but also for making stupid and embarrassing gaffes. His latest gaffe at the European Parliament was to compare a German Social Democratic member of Parliament, who had sharply criticized Berlusconi's record, with a Nazi concentration camp guard.

This insult was not merely in bad taste, but showed that Berlusconi has a thin skin probably because he knows that the accusations against him have some justification. When pressed to withdraw his comment and apologize, he attempted to pass the remark off as irony, suggesting that his critics were lacking in a sense of humor. If his remark was intended to be ironic it certainly did not seem so to the vast majority of his hearers. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called for an apology from Berlusconi, but such excuses as the Italian prime minister could be induced to make have not satisfied his critics.

Unfortunately, Berlusconi is also -- as it is Italy's turn to hold the EU presidency -- chairman of the European Union's council of ministers. As such he will chair discussions on many sensitive issues such as the proposed new constitution for the EU. It seems only too probable that he will make more gaffes and give even greater offense in the course of the next six months. So Europe looks likely to have a roller-coaster period and Europeans will have to expect many bumps. As Berlusconi controls the bulk of the Italian media, the Italian people are not made adequately aware of the disastrous impact of their prime minister on Italy's reputation in Europe and the world. This is deplorable in view of Italy's cultural heritage and commercial and economic strengths.

Sadly, Berlusconi is not the only political leader with a singular capacity for making gaffes. On July 4 the Financial Times reported that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda (who is apparently also minister for gender equality), when commenting on the increasing numbers of rapes in Japan, said that there were women "who seem to be really asking for it" with their provocative appearance.

This seems an incredible insensitive remark for any politician to make, let alone one who is the main government spokesman. Another former minister is also reported to have said that "men involved in a recent university gang-rape were virile," while the gaffe-prone former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori apparently implied that childless women did not deserve pensions.

These remarks, apart from being insensitive and offensive to Japanese women, seem to confirm that Japanese politics remains basically a male chauvinist stronghold. (It is noteworthy that the net reproduction rate is lowest in those developed countries where male chauvinists play a dominant role. Japan's low net reproduction rate of 1.32 is only slightly better than that of Italy and Spain, which also have male-dominated societies.)

The Financial Times noted that these remarks had aroused a storm of criticism in Japan and suggested that Japanese society was changing more rapidly than the attitudes of Japanese politicians who tend to be over 55 years of age.

Few people willingly admit that they have made mistakes, but there are even fewer politicians who are ready to apologize and admit that they should not have said what they did. Nor do they ever admit that the policies that they have pursued or advocated were wrong. Instead of admitting their mistakes they go on the offensive against their opponents.

In Britain the government and the BBC have been conducting a fierce public row over BBC suggestions that Alistair Campbell, the prime minister's spin doctor, sexed up intelligence reports to support the government's case against Iraq. Campbell has admitted that one report was based on a doctoral thesis rather than on new intelligence.

He has also admitted that he asked for a series of changes in an earlier intelligence summary that was published last September, but he has vehemently denied that he demanded the insertion of the claim that the Iraqi regime had weapons of mass destruction, which could be activated within 45 minutes. He seems to have the backing of the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee for this denial. The furor has overshadowed the fact that so far no "smoking gun" or weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq.

The main result of this row has been to deepen British popular skepticism about the reliability of British politicians. This is unfortunate for the democratic process in Britain, especially when we lack a credible opposition. Business executives, bankers, doctors, lawyers, civil servants, journalists, academics and even firefighters, to name only a few occupations, have all been lambasted by politicians for their failings.

It is now time for the electorates in Italy, in Britain and Japan to demand much more serious self-reflection by their politicians. Unless political leaders are ready to admit their mistakes they will not deserve respect and trust.

I rather doubt, however, whether we shall ever see U.S. President George W. Bush or British Prime Minister Tony Blair admit that they got the intelligence over Iraq wrong, and that they did not make adequate plans to cope with the aftermath of the removal of the blood-thirsty Iraqi dictator.

I am certain that we shall not hear Silvio Berlusconi admit that the steps he has taken to remove the threat of prosecution from him were unethical (as they surely are). Nor shall we hear Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi admit that his economic policies have failed (as they surely have) to end deflation in Japan. Fukuda is also most unlikely to admit that he is, as his quoted words suggest, an insensitive male chauvinist pig.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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