Recall drive last-gasp bid to nix Kobe airport


KOBE — A last-gasp effort to halt construction of Kobe airport by recalling the mayor began last week, but activists and politicians who oppose the project are pessimistic that the effort will do any good.

Last Wednesday, the Kobe Committee to Recall the Mayor, a group of antiairport activists and academics, began the legal proceedings to remove Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama by formally announcing their intentions to City Hall.

Once the city confirms the group’s representatives have the right to vote in Kobe, the city must, by law, grant permission for the recall campaign to start. Permission is expected to be granted by Friday.

The real work will then begin. In order to recall the mayor, one third of the city’s eligible voters, or 390,000 people, must be in favor of recalling Sasayama, who won the 1997 mayoral election by a wide margin.

Complicating the matter is the issue of the next general election. If, as widely expected, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori dissolves the Lower House and holds an election in June, it may affect the timetable of the recall effort, possibly postponing it until July or August.

In Japan, no plebiscite or recall campaign can take place less than 30 days before a general election.

Antiairport activists are planning to begin the recall campaign by gathering signatures from April 22 to May 21. No extensions are allowed beyond that if the group is unable to collect the required votes.

If — although chances are now slim — a general election is announced for sometime within this period, the recall effort will have to be postponed.

The recall campaign’s success, however, appears increasingly unlikely. Since the city rejected an earlier motion for a plebiscite on the issue in December 1998, support for the antiairport lobby has diminished. The 1998 drive for the plebiscite netted the signatures of about 310,000 voters.

The recall effort is likely to be the last major push to halt the airport project. Construction of the single-runway airport began last autumn and is expected to be completed by 2005.

Although approved by the Transport Ministry as a domestic-only airport, Sasayama, who has supported the project for nearly a decade, has made it no secret that he wants the airport to be international as well.

He said he hopes international cargo flights will be allowed within a few years after it opens.

Those opposed to the airport say, however, that even if the mayoral recall campaign fails, they will continue to file individual and class-action lawsuits against the city to try to halt the project, especially on financial grounds.

Kobe airport is expected to cost taxpayers 310 billion yen, at a time when the city of Kobe has more than 3 trillion yen in debt, mainly because of reconstruction from the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.