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What’s at stake in upcoming Osaka mayoral poll?

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Voters go to the polls Nov. 27 to elect a mayor for the city of Osaka and the prefectural governor. But it’s the former that is drawing the most attention, due to the candidacy of ex-Gov. Toru Hashimoto and his plan to abolish the city of Osaka and merge it with prefecture.

The plan has been pushed by Hashimoto and his supporters for nearly two years and is the subject of often heated debate between him and incumbent Mayor Kunio Hiramatsu, who has put forth his own plan for the city that would keep it as a separate entity. The future of Osaka, literally, is at stake in an election that pits Hashimoto against the established political parties.

Below are questions and answers on the mayoral election.

What is the main issue of the mayoral election?

The future political and bureaucratic structure of the city and prefecture. Hashimoto is pushing a plan that would abolish the mayor’s office and the municipal assembly and restructure the city’s current 24 wards into eight or nine administrative zones of about 300,000 people each. Each zone would elect its own head and have far more authority than the small wards enjoy.

Hiramatsu favors essentially keeping the city as a separate entity from Osaka Prefecture, but would establish formal bureaucratic links between the city and other prefectural urban areas, including Sakai, to eliminate administrative redundancies.

Why do the candidates find it necessary to restructure the city in the first place?

In Hashimoto’s case, the answer is primarily finances and political power. The prefectural government is all but broke, and the total debt load under Hashimoto actually increased to just over ¥6 trillion.

Much of that debt was incurred during the 1990s, when Kansai airport was built and the prefecture spent billions of yen on white elephant public works projects at a time tax revenues, especially corporate taxes, were falling. The city of Osaka also sank a lot of money into failed public works projects.

But because the city also owns many valuable assets, including land, and receives the bulk of local tax revenue within the prefecture, its situation is not as dire as that of the prefecture. Thus, by merging the city and the prefecture, Hashimoto hopes to improve the total balance sheet as well as create a much more powerful governorship and streamlined bureaucracy.

In Hiramatsu’s case, he doesn’t want to fundamentally restructure the city for the same reasons. He’s well aware the city is in better financial shape than the prefecture and believes the mayor’s office and municipal bureaucracy and assembly offer the city’s 2.6 million residents a more democratic and efficient system of government than Hashimoto’s plan. However, the popularity of Hashimoto, and concerns among a wide swath of Osaka voters about competing municipal and prefectural bureaucracies, pushed him toward promoting a plan to integrate certain bureaucratic functions where possible.

How are the plans being received by Osaka voters?

Hashimoto’s plan has the support of small and medium-size businesses in Osaka, as well as a number of large corporations in the Kansai Economic Federation. They see his plan as the most efficient and economical way to run all of Osaka and believe it will lead to lower taxes and corporate expenses, as well as increased investment.

Many within the Kansai Economic Federation in particular, as well as a few surrounding prefectures, also hope that if Hashimoto’s plan becomes reality, it will lead to the eventual realization of a Kansai superstate, where Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto, Shiga, Nara, Wakayama, and possibly Tokushima prefectures, are all bureaucratically and politically much more integrated.

Voters who support Hiramatsu’s plan, and they include many labor unionists, teachers, government workers, and a broad variety of people who dislike Hashimoto personally, see nothing wrong with the fundamental structure of the city and worry that Hashimoto’s plan is too vague and impractical, and might lead to a loss of local democracy as there would be no more mayor or city assembly.

They also fear their own tax burden would rise via a city-prefecture merger, as they’d have to assume the prefecture’s accumulated debts under Hashimoto’s plan.

What group of voters will likely determine the outcome?

Most local media polls indicate that Hashimoto is in the lead, but by how much is a matter of heated debate. Predications are voter turnout could reach 60 percent of Osaka’s over 2 million voters. If so, that would mean the winner will have to collect more than 600,000 votes.

The LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan’s Osaka chapters are officially endorsing Hiramatsu and, together, bring an estimated 350,000 votes to the polls. The Japanese Communist Party is not officially endorsing Hiramatsu but is encouraging members to vote for him.

Based on previous elections, there are anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 JCP voters.

Hashimoto’s group, Osaka Ishin no kai (One Osaka), can probably organize at least 450,000 votes for his candidacy.

The result is anyone’s guess.