With less than three weeks until the May 17 referendum on whether to consolidate the city of Osaka into five semi-autonomous wards, supporters and opponents of the plan are engaged in an intense and unprecedented media and public relations campaign to win over voters.

Unlike elections, where campaigning methods are strictly controlled, there is a remarkable degree of freedom on all sides to debate, and propagate, their message during a referendum campaign.

What kind of freedom? First, you’re allowed to drum up support for your position before the official campaign period begins, and you can even harangue potential voters on the day of the referendum.

Second, there are no limits on the amount each side can spend to promote its views. Third, political parties do not face detailed rules on the design and number of posters and pamphlets they can print up and pass out advocating their position.

Finally, candidates for public office face restrictions on TV commercials. Their messages are about the political party’s activities, not the individual. But there are no real restrictions on TV commercials for a referendum.

All of this means that supporters and opponents in the Osaka merger referendum have, in theory at least, unprecedented opportunities to get their messages out via the media and other public relations activities.

For Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and his Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) political group, this means directly appealing to voters for support. Over a 12-day period this month, Hashimoto barnstormed the city, holding three town meetings a day lasting about two hours in all of Osaka’s 24 wards.

A downloadable pamphlet from the city’s website explains the plan and has been sent to all Osaka residents by mail and was distributed at the town meetings. All major parties opposed to the plan have drawn up their own pamphlets and materials as well. Both are now flooding social media with their views in ways never seen in election campaigns.

None of this comes cheap. Osaka Ishin is expected to spend from ¥400 million to ¥500 million on the referendum blitz, while the local segment of the Liberal Democratic Party, which opposes the merger, will invest tens of millions of yen to counter him.

Who’s winning the PR war? As of late April, it appears to be the anti-merger camp. Voters and some media are expressing irritation with the way Hashimoto ran the town meetings, sometimes limiting question time. Local media polls in mid-April showed opposition eclipsing support, a reversal of the situation in March.

But with fewer limits on campaigning, Osakans are likely to see a very different blitz in the coming days than the usual campaigns, where white-gloved candidates do nothing but shout their name at passers-by. That could be a good thing, as it means more direct and detailed appeals from both sides, helping to ensure participation on May 17 is well above voter turnout rates for elections.

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