DPJ postpones bill to grant local voting rights to permanent foreign residents

The government has abandoned proposing a bill to grant local voting rights to permanent foreign residents in Japan during the current Diet session, in the face of intense opposition from coalition partner People’s New Party (PNP).

“It’s extremely difficult for the government to sponsor such a bill due to differences over the issue between the ruling coalition partners,” said Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Kazuhiro Haraguchi.

Now, the attention is focused on whether ruling and opposition parties will launch a campaign to pass the bill as legislator-initiated legislation.

The suffrage bill was expected to be based on a draft that the DPJ prepared before it took over the reins of government, and it proposes to grant local suffrage to foreign residents from countries with which Japan has diplomatic ties. The DPJ’s proposal will cover some 420,000 Korean and other special permanent residents — both those who arrived in Japan before World War II and their offspring — as well as about 490,000 foreign residents from other countries.

The campaign to enact legislation on foreign suffrage in local elections dates back to 15 years ago.

Encouraged by the 1995 Supreme Court ruling that “foreign suffrage is not banned by the Constitution,” over 1,500 local assemblies adopted a resolution to support and promote legislation to grant local suffrage to permanent foreign residents in Japan — some 910,000 people as of the end of 2008.

However, as the passage of the bill becomes a real possibility along with the change of government, various views have emerged.

The National Association of Chairpersons of Prefectural Assemblies held an interparty discussion meeting on local suffrage for permanent foreign residents on Feb. 9 in Tokyo.

“It’s not the time for national isolation,” said Azuma Konno, a House of Councillors member of the DPJ, as he explained the party’s policy on the legislation at the meeting, raising massive jeers and objections from participants.

“We can introduce legislation which will make it easier for foreigners to be naturalized,” said Kazuyoshi Hatakeyama, speaker of the Miyagi Prefectural Assembly, while Kochi Prefectural Assembly Vice Speaker Eiji Morita countered, saying: “The DPJ excluded the suffrage bill from its manifesto for last summer’s election.”

The Mie Prefectural Assembly, in which DPJ members form the largest political group, was the only chapter to support the granting of local suffrage to permanent foreign residents.

“The argument against suffrage rings of ethnic nationalism,” said Speaker Tetsuo Mitani.

The fact that the DPJ’s legislation plan met with strong opposition during the meeting highlighted the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s strong sway over local assemblies, where its members manage to remain as the largest political group.

Opponents of the bill argue that it is unreasonable for the central government to make decisions on regional electoral systems while pledging to promote decentralization of authority. Furthermore, the national association of chairpersons adopted a special resolution calling on the government to focus more on the opinions of local assemblies on Jan. 21.

During the LDP Policy Research Council’s national meeting on Feb. 10, LDP lawmakers instructed its prefectural chapters to promote resolutions opposing foreign suffrage at respective local assemblies, in a bid to undermine the Hatoyama administration and the DPJ in cooperation with regional politics.

According to the chairpersons’ association, before the change of government last summer, a total of 34 prefectures supported the granting of local suffrage to foreign residents; however, eight reversed their positions after the DPJ came into power. The trend is expected to accelerate further, pointing to antagonism between the nation’s two largest political parties, as well as the conflicts between the DPJ-led national government and local governments.

The Chiba Prefectural Assembly, which adopted the resolution supporting foreign suffrage in 1999, reversed its position in December last year.

“We cannot believe they overturned their own decision,” said an official at Mindan’s Chiba Prefecture branch. The branch, which has a close relationship with LDP lawmakers, had owed the prefecture’s previous decision to support the suffrage bill to the efforts of LDP members in the prefectural assembly.

The Ibaraki Prefectural Assembly, too, is one of the eight local assemblies that went from for to against suffrage. Mindan’s Ibaraki branch has also expressed its disappointment, saying: “Assembly members are using the issue as part of their campaign strategy for the coming election.”

According to the National Diet Library, foreign residents are granted local suffrage in most major developed countries.