In a surprise move, the Osaka chapter of Komeito will cooperate with Mayor Toru Hashimoto to hold a referendum on whether to integrate the city of Osaka and the prefecture.

But the party says it remains opposed to the merger, and will urge voters to reject the merger plan when the referendum is held in May.

“We’ll conduct a thorough campaign against it,” said Yasuo Machiba, the secretary-general of Komeito’s Osaka assembly group.

For nearly a year, Komeito, which works with Hashimoto’s Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka), a local political group, to form a majority in the city and prefectural assemblies, had joined all other parties in opposing Hashimoto.

A revised version of Hashimoto’s merger plan will likely be submitted to the city and prefectural assemblies in February, where it will pass if Komeito, as expected, agrees. Osaka Ishin and Komeito hope to hold the referendum on May 17, after April’s local elections.

“We are not court judges. We’re elected by the people and we should leave this decision up to the people in a referendum,” Hashimoto told municipal assembly members Tuesday.

Exactly why Komeito has changed its mind, after so much opposition, is the subject of much speculation.

Local party assembly members say pressure from the party’s Tokyo central headquarters last week to support Hashimoto was the reason.

On Sunday, Komeito Lower House member Shigeki Sato, who represents the district in Osaka encompassing the port area and the day laborer area in Nishinari Ward, apologized for forcing the change.

“There was a request to our central party headquarters from Hashimoto to cooperate on the merger issue. Party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said that we should discuss it in a positive manner,” Sato said.

Local Komeito officials remain angry at what they see as meddling in local politics by the central party headquarters. Sato denied reports that Yamaguchi and Komeito’s central headquarters had pressured its local chapters to cooperate with Hashimoto in exchange for the mayor’s agreement not to run against Sato in the Dec. 14 election.

“There was no secret agreement with Hashimoto. The reason for the change in policy is because (Hashimoto’s national) Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) won more proportional votes in Osaka Prefecture than any other party, and we wanted to respect the will of the people,” Sato said.

Hashimoto resigned as Ishin no To co-leader after the election, saying he wants to concentrate on the integration plan and prepare for the local elections in April.

Osaka Ishin supports realigning Osaka’s 24 wards into five semiautonomous zones. The plan would strip the current assembly of much of its power and, Hashimoto says, save taxpayers money in the long run as well as improve bureaucratic efficiency.

But opponents warn that it would save far less money than Hashimoto claims, with little gain in either efficiency or local democracy.