Friday, October 29, 2004

Suffrage for foreigners vital to democracy

POINT OF VIEW/ Atsushi Kondo:Suffrage for foreigners vital to democracy
The Asahi Shimbun
October 21, 2004

I favor extending the right to vote in local elections to foreigners with permanent-resident status in Japan. The idea that only "native citizens'' are the true pillars of democracy is an outdated view at best.

There is no need to limit the definition of the term "resident'' in the concept of ``resident self-government'' to persons of Japanese nationality.

In local elections, ballots by their very nature address how best to administer the district in question. Non-Japanese who have put down firm roots and reside in such communities should be given the right to vote.

Expanding suffrage rights to such foreign residents will also play a significant role in compensating for the democratic deficit. As a case in point, consider the ties between rights and obligations. There is something amiss with banning certain taxpayers from casting votes in elections that determine how those revenues will be spent.

Moreover, such a step would also be instrumental in removing the logic of exclusion and creating a more equitable society where no one is estranged.

I further contend that this policy should not be limited to voting rights. Eligibility to stand for election should also be recognized. Under the doctrines of democracy, it is important for those with the right to choose to also be granted the ability to be chosen.

Nevertheless, I would not be opposed to an incremental approach in which voting rights are approved as the first phase. This could be followed by confirmation that no problems exist and only then authorization can be given for foreigners to run for office.

With the exception of Japan, all of the world's advanced democracies approve local voting rights for certain foreigners in one form or another. There are three basic patterns adopted for this recognition:

(1) Granting of local suffrage to all permanent-resident foreigners (adopted in the Netherlands, the five Scandinavian countries, etc.)

(2) Limiting voting rights to foreigners hailing from designated countries (France, Germany, Italy, etc.)

(3) Recognition of those rights in certain regions, states or local communities (and not the nation as a whole) (Switzerland, the United States, etc.)

One lesson we can learn from these precedents is the fact that even when local-election voting rights are granted to foreigners, no particular troubles seem to occur. In Japan as well, more than 100 municipalities have recognized the right of foreigners to vote in local referendums, and I have heard no reports of any dilemmas related to those policies.

There is one counterargument to the idea of limiting approval of voting rights to local elections, based on the alleged impracticality of dividing the political landscape into ``central'' vs. ``local'' government. Examining the countries that have opted for such approaches, however, we find that the overwhelming majority of governments do in fact limit their approval to the local domain.

I have also heard qualms expressed about how the interests of the Japanese people would be undermined by the priorities of other countries in terms of security, foreign relations and on other fronts. To that, I would reply that the local regions are not responsible for the upholding of national security, the exercising of diplomatic expertise or other sweeping policy matters.

In Japan, furthermore, mention of ``foreigner'' covers people from a wide range of countries-South and North Korea, China, Brazil, the Philippines and the United States to name just a few. The very concept of a dichotomy that pits the interests of "Japanese people'' against those of ``foreigners'' is specious in itself.

Another idea voiced in opposition to foreign voting rights is that it would make it easier to obtain Japanese citizenship. That view, however, reveals a basic ignorance of the issue at hand.

Granted, when adopted in combination with voting rights for foreign residents, a policy to streamline naturalization would generate synergistic effects.

However, it would not serve as a replacement for expanding suffrage to deserving non-Japanese.

For the sake of argument, let's say that it was made easier to obtain Japanese citizenship. Even under that scenario, though, a large number of foreigners in Japan would choose not to change their nationality.

The main reason is that in Japan and the majority of Asian countries that do not recognize multiple nationality, it is required that applicants give up their native citizenship when obtaining the new status.

I find it difficult to believe that insisting that permanent-resident foreigners obtain citizenship to be able to vote, and that nationality be rendered easier to hold, can truly resolve the problems posed by democratic deficit.

If multiple nationality status were to be recognized, it would be possible for recipients to vote in their country of residence without renouncing their original citizenship.

There is a trend afoot among the developed nations to allow this, and that is in fact the accepted policy in all of the Group of Eight industrialized countries other than Japan and Germany.

And now even Germany is moving to expand the list of exceptions to the ban on multiple citizenship, while concurrently granting local election voting rights to certain segments of foreigners. In the United States, while suffrage for foreigners is only allowed in certain regions, the status of multiple-nationality is effectively recognized for all practical intents and purposes.

Against this backdrop, the insularity of Japanese society is indisputable.

* * *
Atsushi Kondo is a professor at Kyushu Sangyo University, specializing in the Constitution. He is well-versed in human rights issues of foreigners.


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