Foreigners won’t have the right to vote in Sunday’s election but the national association of South Koreans, the largest ethnic group of permanent foreign residents, is waging a rare political campaign to win local-level suffrage because it believes there is too much at stake this time.

The Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan), which represents permanent South Korean residents, is campaigning for candidates in favor of foreigners’ suffrage in local-level elections.

Whether to give permanent foreign residents suffrage has long been a contentious political issue. Mindan has been pursuing the right for many years, and the election is viewed as a big chance to improve the odds, a senior Mindan official said.

“We are working to get as many candidates who are in favor of giving permanent residents local suffrage rights elected to the Diet,” Seo Won Cheol told The Japan Times.

While the group says it does not have any particular political affiliation, the move apparently reflects high expectations for the Democratic Party of Japan, which is more supportive of giving permanent residents suffrage than the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which opposes it outright. Media opinion polls so far have indicated the DPJ is likely to win by a landslide.

Seo said many Mindan members are doing what they can under the election laws, putting up posters for candidates, sending out postcards, distributing fliers or even giving the names of voters around them to the camps they support so campaigners can call them up and ask for support.

The public offices election law prohibits foreigners from making donations or providing any kind of financial support to the candidates, but there are no regulations regarding the act of campaigning itself, Seo said, adding, “We’re very careful in not doing things we shouldn’t do, because the law is very strict.”

The South Korean group is formed by descendants of ethnic Koreans who migrated to Japan during the colonial period, or were forcibly brought over to perform wartime labor and later settled. Its North Korean counterpart, the General Association of Korean residents in Japan, or Chongryon, does not pursue voting rights in Japan because they consider themselves North Korean nationals living overseas.

Seo said Mindan members sometimes support candidates on an individual basis, but this is the group’s first concerted effort.

When the election is over, Seo said Mindan will pressure the legislators they supported to follow through and submit a bill to the Diet giving permanent foreign residents the right to vote in local elections.

“We are local residents just like Japanese citizens, but our rights have been ignored for too long, and our frustration has reached its peak,” Seo said, noting Mindan will push legislators to submit the bill to the next extraordinary Diet session.

“We are local residents of the community,” he said. “It is unthinkable that more than half a century has passed without giving us the right to participate in the community in a democratic society.”

Political parties are sharply divided over the issue. New Komeito, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party are clearly supportive of granting foreigners local-level suffrage. But the DPJ is still trying to unify its stance.

Critics of the idea of foreigner suffrage say the Constitution stipulates that sovereignty rests with the people, who are defined as as those who hold Japanese nationality. Thus one must obtain that before being given the right to vote.

Meanwhile, many countries, including South Korea, have given foreign permanent residents the right to vote in local elections, believing community-level political participation to be necessary and no threat to their sovereignty.

After Mindan decided in February to be politically active in the election, it proceeded to study all the laws and let each local chapter pick candidates to volunteer for, Seo said.

Seo stressed, however, that Mindan is not out to back a particular party and its decisions are based on the opinions of the candidates.

“Over the years, we have developed favorable relationships with politicians of different political parties, and the situation differs depending on the local chapters and the candidates. So it’s not that simple to decide which party to support,” he explained.

However, noting there are many LDP lawmakers who individually favor local-level suffrage, Seo admitted his group, which has been actively addressing the issue since 1993, is pinning its hopes on the DPJ because the LDP let them down too many times.

Despite agreeing to enact laws to introduce local suffrage for permanent residents in 1999 with New Komeito and the Liberal Party, which later joined the DPJ, the LDP never deliberated the issue, he said. New Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner in the current ruling bloc, submitted a bill several times, but it was never seriously taken up by the LDP.

“What’s important is that we get as many people supporting the suffrage issue into the Diet,” he said.

Giving local suffrage to special permit holders is beneficial for the entire country, Seo said, adding that South Korea gave permanent residents local suffrage in 2005.

“To respect the rights of foreigners means that the country is keen on protecting the human rights of Japanese citizens as well, so I believe it’s actually a national benefit,” he said.

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