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Staff writer TOKUSHIMA — The group smiled and waved as they jogged through the city of Tokushima earlier this week, calling on local residents to go to the polls. Theirs is no usual campaign. The men and women on this two-day “sacred run” are part of an effort by local citizens’ groups to rally residents to vote in a Jan. 23 plebiscite on the Yoshino River dam project. They aim to get at least 50 percent of the electorate to go to the polls — the minimum for the ballot boxes to even be opened. The plebiscite — the first to be held on a government-proposed public works project — was officially announced Thursday. Plebiscites have been held nine times in Japan; the issues covered include construction of a waste-disposal facility and a nuclear power plant. The 103 billion yen Tokushima project calls for demolishing the 250-year-old Daijuzeki rock barrier on the Yoshino River and building a dam that would also function as a bridge. The vote is the result of efforts by citizens’ groups to have the voices of local residents heard regarding the project, which would have an enormous impact on their lives because of its high cost — probably bringing higher taxes — and its detrimental effects on the quality of the river’s water. After long and difficult negotiations, the municipal assembly finally agreed late last year to allow a vote to take place in January. This concession included one condition: at least 50 percent of the voters must cast ballots for any to be counted at all. The electorate totaled 209,320 as of Thursday. Some experts, including Shinichiro Takeda, associate professor of administrative law at Aichi University, lambasted the 50 percent restriction, saying it runs counter to the aim of a plebiscite. The citizens’ group that initiated the plebiscite drive, Daijuzeki Jumintohyo no Kai (Daijuzeki Plebiscite Group), however, is gritting its teeth and doing all it can to meet the requirement, determined to clear this latest hurdle. This is no easy task, as recent figures show. In the last mayoral election, held in February 1997, voter turnout was only 30.68 percent. Turnout for the municipal assembly poll last April was higher, but still just 59.67 percent. “Clearing the 50 percent hurdle is pretty tough, but it is our task to make the plebiscite successful. The ability of the average citizen (to be heard) will be put to the test,” said Masashi Noguchi, a key member of the Daijuzeki group. But a successful turnout does not equal success in stopping the project. The plebiscite is nonbinding, and the Construction Ministry has stressed that — regardless of the people’s wishes — it will push ahead with the plan. Nonetheless, Noguchi’s group as well as experts, including Takayoshi Igarashi, a professor at Hosei University with a special interest in public works, have faith that the ministry would have to yield to strong local opposition. At least one past plebiscite resulted in the people being heard. In August 1996, more than 60 percent of voters in Maki, Niigata Prefecture, voted against construction of a nuclear plant in their town. Three years later, the mayor sold the proposed site to locals opposing the project. Because the assembly set the date for the Tokushima poll just last month, citizens’ groups have been waging various campaigns to raise voter
awareness and turnout. These strategies include distributing leaflets and postcards, calling door-to-door, employing a loudspeaker van and holding placards on the roadside reading “Plebiscite on Jan. 23.” A full-page advertisement in the local newspaper on the morning of voting day is also planned. Meanwhile, some political parties are also joining the movement. Yukio Hatoyama, head of the Democratic Party of Japan, visited the Yoshino River on Monday and said for the first time that his party opposes the project and called on the electorate to cast a “no” vote. The local chapter of New Komeito, which backs the project, took to the streets Monday to state its position. The local chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party, also an advocate of the project, meanwhile appears to be making light of the vote, doing little publicly in possible expectation that turnout will fall shy of the requirement. Anticipating that some conservative party members may pressure others to refrain from going to the polls, citizens’ groups are strengthening their campaigns. Masayoshi Himeno, a representative of the Daijuzeki group, says he wants to emphasize to local residents that their vote really counts. “The main reason for the low voter turnout for (regular) elections is that people believe their vote will change nothing,” Himeno said. “But this time, it could result in a major policy change, and I would like to emphasize this point when appealing to the electorate.”

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