OSAKA – Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto cruised to re-election Sunday night in a snap contest supporters and critics criticized as a waste of time and taxpayer money.
The voter turnout rate was a pathetic 23.59 percent — the city’s lowest ever.
Combined with the tally for early voting, that means about a quarter of Osaka’s voters went to the polls, more than 30 points less than in the 2011 mayoral election.
During the campaign, Hashimoto lashed out at the local media for not taking the election seriously. In a highly unusual move, he skipped the post-election press conference after his victory was confirmed and instead sent Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui out to defend him from criticism that the election, which cost an estimated ¥600 million, was a waste of money.
“We kept hearing this was a useless election, but despite that, one in four voters went to the polls,” Matsui said.
The snap election, called by Hashimoto in February after a city assembly committee refused to endorse his plan and timetable for integrating the city of Osaka with the prefecture, pitted the mayor and his Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) political group against three minor nonaligned candidates who opposed the merger plan.
Hashimoto was hoping that a resounding victory against a candidate from a major party opposed to his plan would give him the necessary political leverage to coax the municipal assembly into allowing one of the four integration proposals under discussion to be voted on in a public referendum this autumn.
However, saying the election was a waste of money that would decide nothing, all of the other major political parties refused to field candidates.
Grilled about his next move, Matsui said only that Osaka Ishin wanted to continue discussions on the merger with all of the other parties. He struck a slightly conciliatory note when he indicated that, if the other political parties were willing to discuss bringing forward a referendum on the merger, there might be some flexibility on Osaka Ishin’s timeline.
That schedule calls for a final integration plan to be voted on in a referendum this autumn, and, if passed, for the actual merger to take place in spring 2015. However, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Japan Communist Party, and the Democratic Party of Japan have all opposed the plan.
New Komeito, which cooperates with Osaka Ishin in the city assembly to form a majority, has previously signaled that it’s not against a merger per se. But after the party voted down an Osaka Ishin-backed proposal to move forward at the February committee meeting, Hashimoto charged that New Komeito had broken its promise to support him and resigned, triggering the snap election.
New Komeito officials have said more discussion is needed, and that it was important to build understanding, regardless of whatever timetable Hashimoto had in mind.
Hashimoto and merger opponents are likely to view the election results quite differently. While there are officially four merger plans under consideration, Hashimoto campaigned on only one of them, which divides Osaka’s current 24 wards into five semiautonomous areas, each with its own elected leadership, and eliminates the Osaka city assembly.
Many Osaka Ishin members now worry that, without some sort of compromise in the merger committee and political fence-mending with New Komeito, Sunday’s low turnout and the fact that Hashimoto called an election against the wishes of many voters may cause legislative gridlock in the municipal assembly and, possibly, a backlash in the spring 2015 city and prefectural assembly elections.