The Tokyo metropolitan assembly voted down an ordinance that proposed a referendum on whether people in Tokyo oppose the restart of nuclear reactors operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., an issue that heavily affects the people’s lives.
In March, a similar proposal was struck down by the Osaka municipal assembly.
About 320,000 people signed the petition supporting the proposal in Tokyo, while the number was 55,000 in Osaka. It is highly regrettable that their voices have been ignored.
Japan has never had a national referendum. But we feel that local and national referendums will increase in importance as a means to supplement our indirect democracy.
The basis of democracy in Japan is for elected legislators and heads of the national and local governments to determine the budgets, laws and ordinances of the country and municipalities. However, there are now situations in which that fundamental framework does not suffice. A typical example is nuclear power.
Public opinion is divided over restarting idle reactors: whether to put safety or the economy first. Moreover, public distrust of the politicians and bureaucrats who are supposed to make that decision is growing stronger.
In such times, a public referendum that asks the people their opinion is a perfect vehicle with which to complement indirect democracy. Last autumn, we went a step further to propose that the country hold national referendums for issues other than constitutional revision.
When the ordinance for the referendum was brought to the assembly, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara criticized it, saying, "It will be the ruin of this country if you were to pass judgment upon nuclear power based only on abstract thinking, and if that judgment were to have some sort of moral authority."
He was virtually saying, "Why don't you all just shut up?"
Politicians are quite negative about referendums and other forms of direct democracy. Last year, when the government considered partial implementation of a legally binding popular referendum, it was shelved after protests from leaders of municipalities and local assemblies.
It is fine for elected officials to be aware of their responsibilities to their electorate, but that does not mean they have a blank check on things. If they are trying to monopolize the decision-making process in a democracy, not only is that alien to this modern age with its complex political agenda, but it is also dangerous.
Of course, that does not mean the public will always make a rational choice. But that is why new methods have appeared, such as “deliberative polling,” in which an opinion poll is held and a certain number of respondents continue to discuss the issue with policy-makers.
The new measures also include independent organizations selecting citizens at random who are expected to hold discussions and come up with policy proposals for local governments.
We welcome the government’s move to include the results of deliberative polling in devising its future basic energy policies.
These direct democratic methods are also effective in raising public awareness for political participation.
There should be multiple avenues for public opinion to be reflected in national politics and local autonomy. The more methods available, the better.
--The Asahi Shimbun, June 24
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