Staff writer Sunday’s plebiscite over a controversial dam project in Tokushima Prefecture may have triggered more questions and issues to be tackled than it has solved, as both government and citizens grapple to find a middle ground on incorporating residents’ voices over public works projects. The 90 percent “no” vote is an indication of local residents’ strong opposition toward the Yoshino River dam plan and their distrust over the way public works projects are carried out. About 55 percent of the eligible electorate turned out. Public works projects have often been criticized for their inflexibility. These huge projects are usually carried out regardless of changes in social conditions and without paying heed to the opinions of local residents. Faced with opposition to various projects across the country, the Construction Ministry recently began advocating “consultation with local residents” in carrying out such projects. The 1997 revised River Law also calls for reflecting the opinions of local residents when drawing up plans for public works projects that involve rivers. Takayoshi Igarashi, a professor at Hosei University, decried the ministry’s intention to carry out the dam project regardless of the plebiscite’s nonbinding outcome, saying it should follow the spirit of the law and show that it has really changed its way of carrying out public works projects. A group of experts advocating plebiscites released a statement Sunday that also criticized the ministry’s stance, saying it is ignoring local democracy and local autonomy. The Tokushima Municipal Assembly decreed that a minimum 50 percent voter turnout be required for the ballots to be opened and counted — the first such restriction in the past nine plebiscites held in the country. This also drew criticism from many experts, who said it runs counter to the citizen’s right to know and to the aim of a plebiscite. In fact, due to the 50 percent rule, those who support the project called on others to refrain from going to the polls and no active debate was held in public between supporters and opponents. While the Tokushima case may encourage opponents to other public works projects in other areas of the country, it is feared that the 50 percent restriction may have set a bad precedent and may make it even harder to realize a plebiscite, reckoned Yoshiaki Kobayashi, a professor of political science at Keio University. In order to nurture grassroots democracy, Kobayashi is calling for the creation of a law that allows for a legally binding plebiscite as long as a certain number of signatures are collected.
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