The controversial Yoshino River dam project will be scrapped if residents of Tokushima hold a plebiscite and a majority of the voters oppose it, Construction Minister Katsutsugu Sekiya said Tuesday.

Sekiya’s comment marks a turnaround from the ministry’s earlier position that a local plebiscite should not decide the fate of such projects.

In February, the 40-member Tokushima Municipal Assembly, in a 22-16 vote with one abstention, rejected a petition bearing about 100,000 signatures to hold a plebiscite to gauge local opinions. The signatures, presented by opponents of the dam project, accounted for roughly half of the local electorate.

But in an election Sunday, candidates supporting a plebiscite captured a majority in the assembly, making it likely the dam foes will revive their drive to submit a new petition to the assembly when it convenes in June.

Sekiya’s latest comment is expected to encourage the newly elected Tokushima assembly members to accelerate their push for a plebiscite. Although not legally binding, a successful plebiscite would likely have a strong political impact.

The 100 billion yen Yoshino River dam project calls for destruction of an existing 250-year-old barrier made of rocks near the estuary of the Yoshino River, which runs through Tokushima Prefecture in eastern Shikoku, and construction of a bridge dam with sluice gates for flood control.

Residents who sought the plebiscite claim the project is not only a waste of taxpayer money but also harmful to the natural environment. “If a majority of local residents say ‘No’ to (the project) in a plebiscite, the ministry does not plan to override such opposition,” Sekiya told a regular news conference after Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

He said the dam is necessary because the existing barrier is too old and must be replaced by a new, safer structure. “The government is making all-out efforts to win local understanding of the need for the dam,” he added.

However, his comment apparently reflects the Construction Ministry’s efforts to improve the public’s negative image of works projects as behemoths that, once initiated, can never be halted — no matter how far they stray from the needs of the local populace.

Newly elected members of the Tokushima assembly — both proponents and opponents of the plebiscite — expressed surprise at Sekiya’s remarks.

An assembly member who won the election by supporting the plebiscite said the comment “marks the first step toward a true democracy,” while supporters of the dam said they would not comment until they confirm Sekiya’s true intentions.

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