Clashing views of suffrage for foreigners preceded Musashino assembly vote

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Musashino, Tokyo, city assembly meeting on Tuesday

A proposed ordinance in Musashino, Tokyo, that would have allowed foreign residents to vote in referendums sparked confrontation before it was voted down in the city assembly.

On Tuesday, the Musashino city assembly rejected the proposed ordinance at a plenary meeting, amid concerns about politically enfranchising foreigners more broadly. Prior to the meeting, the proposal had passed the assembly’s general affairs committee by a narrow 4-3 margin on Dec. 13.

After the city submitted the proposal to the assembly in November, strident emails were sent to assembly members from proponents of both sides, with messages such as “You will be finished as an assemblyman if you vote for the ordinance” or “It is discriminatory to oppose it.”

In Tuesday’s debate at the plenary meeting, opinions were split. One member said, “The draft ordinance could give the political franchise to foreigners in a broad sense,” while another argued, “Foreigners are part of the community.”

Assembly member Natsuho Honda, who had not previously expressed her stance, opposed the proposal because the city “has not gained public understanding of the [proposed] system.”

Honda told The Yomiuri Shimbun after the plenary meeting, “The issue could create division among residents.”

On Tuesday, 11 assembly members, including those from the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan — which supports Mayor Reiko Matsushita in steering the assembly — and the Japanese Communist Party, voted in favor, claiming that a referendum is different from an election, and therefore it is “unnatural” to exclude foreigners.

Fourteen members, including those from the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, voted against, arguing that a distinct standard is necessary regarding the voting rights for foreigners.

In February of this year, the Musashino city government released a skeleton plan of the ordinance and then released its preliminary draft in August. Matsushita said she did her best to publicize it.

However, only a total of 13 citizens participated in public meetings held in March and August. After the proposed ordinance was rejected Tuesday, Matsushita said, “I take the result as a voice from the assembly to make the issue better known.”

There was a case similar to that of Musashino in the past. In 2015, the Akashi city government in Hyogo Prefecture submitted a proposal to its assembly to allow foreigners living in Japan for three years or longer to have the right to vote, but it was rejected on the grounds that the notion of allowing foreigners to vote was inconceivable.

Reitaku University Prof. Hidetsugu Yagi, who specializes in constitutional law, said that voting agendas can cover issues related to national interests, such as U.S. military bases and nuclear power plants, and it would become difficult for municipalities to ignore the results of a referendum.

“Allowing foreigners to vote would allow them to be involved in municipal affairs and could effectively give them [a broader] political franchise,” he said.