A group of Osaka legislators tasked with discussing municipal integration formally approved a plan Tuesday that would merge the city’s 24 wards into five semi-autonomous zones, each with its own elected head.

The decision sets the stage for approval by the full municipal assembly next month, which will result in a public referendum to be held May 17.

It came after Komeito, which works with Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) in the assembly to form a majority, dropped its opposition to a public referendum.

Despite Tuesday’s agreement, Komeito remains opposed to the plan. However, in a surprise move last month, it agreed to the referendum, as desired by Hashimoto.

The change of heart, Komeito officials said, came out of a desire to settle the issue once and for all.

However the decision was made only after strong pressure from Komeito’s central headquarters, which fears a backlash in Osaka against the party in the April elections if voters become angry at the continued political paralysis in the municipal assembly.

The other parties, including the local chapters of the Liberal Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party, are all strongly opposed to both the merger plan and a public referendum, calling the former an ill-conceived idea that will end up costing far more money than Hashimoto claims it will save.

Given the Osaka Ishin-Komeito coalition majority, formal passage of the merger plan next month is guaranteed.

Hashimoto, however, is now betting his party comes out of the April elections with enough seats to remain politically viable and convince a majority of voters to approve his plan the following month.

But with Komeito expected to urge voters to turn down the merger plan in the May referendum, Hashimoto and Osaka Ishin face an uphill battle. If the merger plan is rejected, Hashimoto has said he will finish out his term as mayor, which ends in December, and retire from politics.

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