Sunday’s mayoral contest in Sakai, one of Japan’s most independent-minded cities, is expected to decide not only the fate of a plan to merge Osaka prefectural cities into a single administrative entity, but also the fate of national-level efforts to create a new opposition party.

But most of all, the race between Mayor Osami Takeyama, 63, and Katsutoshi Nishibayashi, 43, backed by Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), is seen as a major turning point for Osaka Mayor and Nippon Ishin co-leader Toru Hashimoto and the future of his party.

Sakai, Osaka Prefecture’s second-largest city with a population of more than 840,000, is an ancient port that was at one time one of the wealthiest cities in the country. Over the centuries, Chinese, Korean and European traders passed through Sakai, which from the 14th to 16th centuries was something of an autonomous fiefdom that considers itself historically and somewhat culturally distinct from the city of Osaka.

Now, with Hashimoto’s plan to turn Sakai into a special zone under his goal of integrating Osaka prefectural cities into a single entity, the Sakai race has become a battle between the faction backing Takeyama, who wants to keep Sakai a separate city, and those who support the pro-integration Nishibayashi.

Takeyama finds himself with support from not only the Liberal Democratic Party’s prefectural chapter, which is the main opposition party in the Osaka municipal and prefectural assemblies, but also, indirectly, the Japanese Communist Party. The JCP decided this summer not to field a candidate lest the anti-Hashimoto vote be split, and also opposes the Osaka merger. Further backing for Takeyama comes from the Democratic Party of Japan.

The key to victory, however, rests with New Komeito voters. New Komeito cooperates with Nippon Ishin in the Osaka Municipal Assembly to form a ruling majority, but skepticism over the Osaka merger plan abounds.

New Komeito has said it will let its supporters, many of whom belong to the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, make up their own minds.

Polls by the Asahi and Yomiuri newspaper groups late last week showed Takeyama was leading and that large numbers of Sakai voters opposed merging with Osaka, but also that many voters remained uncommitted to either candidate. Turnout will be the key, which most pundits expect to be around 40 percent at most.

However, reports last week that one unnamed party’s internal poll showed Nishibayashi was 10 points behind Takeyama shocked not only Nippon Ishin but also other opposition parties, which continue to informally discuss realignment.

Takeyama’s supporters include Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido, who heads the Union of Kansai Governments, a group of seven prefectures and four cities that Sakai belongs to. Ido angered Hashimoto when he attended a Takeyama rally as head of the union and announced his support.

“If he made the announcement as head of the union, he should be kicked out,” Hashimoto said.

“Hashimoto visited Hyogo to campaign for mayoral candidates in Itami and Takarazuka earlier this year, and criticized my policies as governor. So he has no right to complain,” Ido retorted, although he said he was endorsing Takeyama in a private capacity.

Ido and Hashimoto are bitter rivals who have clashed over numerous plans by Nippon Ishin to integrate the region.

Hashimoto, sensing this is an election he could well lose, has taken to Twitter in recent days to counter the growing backlash among Sakai voters to the merger plan.

“The people of Sakai are trying to judge the Osaka merger plan without seeing all of the details. Therefore, it’s impossible to judge the concept. A decision on the merger should be made in a referendum after all the details are clear,” Hashimoto said Tuesday.

He added that the lack of clear details was the reason he rejected a referendum drive by Osaka voters in 2012 to get out of nuclear power, saying, “A simple referendum asking to approve or reject something in which all of the details aren’t clear has no meaning.”

If Takeyama is re-elected, it is not clear what Hashimoto’s next move would be, but it would likely mean the final defeat of his Osaka integration plan. Opposition party members and some in Nippon Ishin are wondering if Hashimoto might not resign his position as Osaka mayor, or, possibly, face a recall campaign by his ever-growing number of local opponents.

That, however, creates the question of what then happens to Nippon Ishin and whether the Tokyo and Osaka factions of the party finally split into two smaller parties.

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