Osaka Mayor and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) co-leader Toru Hashimoto’s most fundamental political goal, the integration of Osaka Prefecture and the city of Osaka, appears ever more in doubt as his opponents join forces in a key local election and his own party ranks express skepticism and confusion over what a merger would really mean.

The Sept. 29 mayoral election in the city of Sakai is a must-win battle for the beleaguered Hashimoto because a loss could split the party. Mayor Osami Takeyama, 63, is seeking re-election against Nippon Ishin-backed Katsutoshi Nishibayashi, 43.

Nippon Ishin’s plan to merge the city and prefecture into a series of quasi-autonomous zones is opposed by Takeyama, who, in addition to the local chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party, just received the support of the Japanese Communist Party, which, like the local LDP, opposes Hashimoto’s plans.

“The proposal to merge Osaka prefecture and Osaka will destroy Sakai. Even though our political stance is different from the LDP, we want to join forces with them,” JCP Secretary-General Tadayoshi Ichida said Monday.

While deep rivals on the national stage, in Osaka the LDP and JCP often cooperate quietly and unofficially behind the scenes. The two parties also supported Hashimoto’s opponent in the November 2011 mayoral poll.

Asked Tuesday about the JCP backing and the possibility of the national LDP also supporting Takeyama, Hashimoto said the latter move would have a huge impact, if it happens.

“Accepting the JCP’s support means you can’t have bureaucratic reform. And if the national LDP were to support Takeyama, it would mean (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe is supporting Takeyama,” Hashimoto said.

Hashimoto wants Diet members to visit Sakai in support of Nishibayashi. But at a meeting of senior Nippon Ishin leaders late last week, co-leader Shintaro Ishihara said the Osaka integration plan is difficult to understand and questioned its merit.

The meeting, a video conference between officials in Tokyo and Osaka, was not attended by Hashimoto due to his mayoral duties.

“I don’t really get a sense of what it is,” Ishihara told Nippon Ishin Secretary-General and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui after being told the purpose of integration is to create specialized economic zones.

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