National / Politics

Lack of interest in Osaka mayoral race threatens to damage Ishin brand

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

While Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto is all but certain to be returned to office in Sunday’s election, a lack of interest among voters and the refusal by the major political parties to field candidates threatens to make the result meaningless.

Hashimoto resigned last month after a municipal committee formed to discuss merging the city and prefecture of Osaka opposed the mayor’s proposal, which calls for a final merger plan to be decided by this summer and for a citywide referendum on the issue in the autumn.

The Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the Democratic Party of Japan’s municipal assembly members voted against the plan, which is backed by Hashimoto’s Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) political group.

Osaka Ishin and New Komeito form the ruling coalition in the municipal assembly. But New Komeito, which indicated prior to the 2012 Lower House election that it would back Hashimoto’s plan in exchange for campaign support, said last month the merger question needed further discussion and that it was wrong to rush a decision.

Charging that he was betrayed by New Komeito and angry at continued opposition from the LDP, Hashimoto called a snap election in the hope that voters would return him to office and thus pressure the municipal assembly to allow his proposal to be put to a referendum.

Any autumn referendum would be in line with the schedule he and Osaka Ishin promised in the November 2011 dual election for mayor and Osaka governor.

Saying that a mayoral election was a waste of time and money and would change nothing, all major parties have refused to field candidates.

This has left Hashimoto in a race against three weak candidates that he is expected to win handily against two nonaffiliated candidates, Shigeo Ninomiya, 37, an unemployed former temporary staff worker, and Toshihisa Fujishima, 51, who works at an Internet television company, as well as “Mac” Akasaka, 65, (real name: Makoto Tonami), who heads the Smile Party.

These three candidates have little support and Hashimoto is expected to win handily. Local media polls, however, show little voter enthusiasm. According to a recent survey by the Asahi Shimbun and Asahi Broadcasting, just 15 percent of respondents said they had a great deal of interest in the election. A Yomiuri Shimbun poll showed that just 41 percent would definitely vote, half the rate ahead of the 2011 election.

Osaka Ishin officials are concerned that low voter turnout will only embolden opponents of the merger plan, and may well lead to a backlash against the party when municipal and prefectural elections are held in spring next year.