Mindan fights for foreigners’ local-level suffrage

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.

“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.

“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.