PUBLIC PARTICIPATION IN GOVERNMENT

More local authorities turn to plebiscites

Sixteen local governments in Japan had established ordinances allowing plebiscites as of the end of fiscal 1999, according to a Home Affairs Ministry report released Wednesday.

In a Jan. 23 plebiscite in Tokushima, Tokushima Prefecture, local residents rejected a project to build a weir across the Yoshino River.

In July, 53 percent of Konagai, Nagasaki Prefecture, residents voted in favor of a four-year project to develop new quarries and expand existing facilities in the area, despite complaints by some residents over noise and dust pollution caused by reclamation work in a local bay.

In order to create more opportunities for citizens to take part in government, the Nagasaki town also enacted an ordinance in March allowing the town’s mayor to initiate a plebiscite on any issue whenever it is deemed necessary.

Plebiscite bills can also be submitted by local assembly members or citizens provided they collect signatures from at least 2 percent of voters in the municipality concerned.

Of the 16 plebiscites these local governments held, five concerned nuclear power reactors, while another five concerned industrial waste disposal facilities.

Okinawa Prefecture and five other municipalities conducted polls on issues such as the presence of U.S. military bases and the viability of large public works projects.

While plebiscites are considered an effective method of involving citizens in government, some argue that having the populace make decisions on important issues may sway the outcome of elections for governors, mayors and assembly members.

Such fears appear to have discouraged local governments from aggressively instituting ordinance on votes.

As part of a central government project to promote decentralization, the government is considering setting up a system to facilitate plebiscites, but opinions are divided in Tokyo.