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Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Local Elections: Megaprojects now nightmare to explain


Staff writer

OSAKA -- In the city assembly elections four years ago, politicians promised voters that the key to Osaka's future was to adopt the famous line from the Kevin Costner movie "Field of Dreams."

"If we build it, they will come," seemed to be the main election theme, as candidates of all political stripes trumpeted the merits of various construction projects. Both Kansai International Airport and the Asian Trade Center had opened the year before, while the World Trade Center was the latest addition to the Osaka waterfront area.

Politicians promised the projects would lead to an influx of new business from Asia and a revived economy. The hope was that the airport, ATC, WTC and other facilities would attract domestic and international investment and, ultimately, the Olympics.

Today, Osaka is the Japan Olympic Committee candidate for the 2008 Summer Games and a strong contender to host the Group of Eight summit next year. But with the Asian crisis lingering, the number of flights into Kansai airport falling, and buildings like WTC and ATC reportedly half-empty and bleeding red ink, the sunny optimism of four years ago is noticeably absent in this year's campaign speeches.

This year, the candidates have to explain to voters just what, exactly, happened to the dreams of four years ago. Poor planning and ignoring market needs are partially responsible for the city's total bond debt of nearly 4.8 trillion yen at the end of fiscal 1998.

Of this figure, 2.7 trillion yen is attributable to a number of construction projects, including the ATC and WTC, that were expected to generate revenue but are deeply in the red. "The amount of bond debt has nearly doubled over the past six years. Instead of preparing for the needs of an elderly society, money was spent on business projects that are now draining tax money," Osaka lawyer Tatsuya Kimura said. "People are worried that in a few years, they're going to have their taxes raised to pay for City Hall's mistakes."

Another voter issue is whether Osaka's Olympic bid is still viable, given the Beijing candidacy and the International Olympic Committee bribery scandal. While city officials claim a successful 2008 Olympics will kick-start the local economy, there is growing pessimism about Osaka's chances and a growing lack of enthusiasm by all political parties about the bid.

In 1995, all parties agreed to a resolution to support an Olympic bid. Four years later, however, there is pressure on some to drop their support. Kiyoshi Himeno, a Japanese Communist Party assembly member, said the JCP is considering resigning from the bid promotion committee that was established in February. "There are a number of concerns we have related to the costs of hosting the Olympics and whether the city has adequately consulted the general public," he said.

The JCP is currently the third-largest party in the municipal assembly, holding 14 of the 92 seats. The Liberal Democratic Party is the largest, with 32 seats, and New Komeito is second with 19. Neither Naoto Kan's Democratic Party of Japan nor Ichiro Ozawa's Liberal Party have any representatives on the assembly.



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