OSAKA – As the city of Osaka prepares for Sunday’s unprecedented referendum on the merger plan being championed by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, most media polls show those opposed to the plan holding anywhere from a slim to a wide lead, though the margin is too close to call.
But with key members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration supporting the merger despite opposition by the Osaka chapter of the Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, Sunday’s vote will impact not only the future of the city, but also relations between the prime minister and the Japan Innovation Party, which Hashimoto helped found and which Abe hopes will support his efforts to revise the Constitution.
The referendum asks voters if they want to merge the current 24 districts, all of which are run by an appointed bureaucrat and have representatives in the city assembly. The merger would create five semiautonomous wards, each with its own elected head and assembly.
If approved, it would be the first time a major Japanese city has redrawn itself. Hashimoto has staked his political career on the merger’s success, calling it the only way the city and Osaka Prefecture can eliminate redundant projects, improve efficiency, and spur the city’s economic growth.
Hashimoto and his local party, Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka), also expect the new wards to be able to compete more efficiently with Tokyo, especially in luring new businesses. They believe the new system will mean increased local democracy.
But Hashimoto’s message has been greeted with confusion, skepticism or both.
Asked by local LDP members about what would happen if, after the merger, the prefecture wants to create a casino resort in one of the wards and the assembly says no, Hashimoto suggested the prefecture could overrule the ward.
A merger also creates questions about who pays for current and future transportation infrastructure projects. Hashimoto and the pro-merger camp want, essentially, to spread the costs around, especially since many of the projects funded by the city benefit residents who live outside of it.
The opposition says the authority and management for city-funded projects should stay with the city and not be transferred, even partially, to the prefecture under a merged system.
A poll by the Mainichi Broadcasting System showed opposition to be particularly strong among women, especially those in their 20s and 70s. This reflects concern over how social welfare services for children and the elderly would be affected. Those living in less-affluent areas are worried services might decline from a lack of funding from the current city as a whole.
Tokyo is watching events carefully.
With Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga conveying earlier this week that he understands the arguments for the merger, the pressure is on local LDP members to explain their opposition more clearly or watch many LDP supporters vote for it.
“Suga’s comments are extremely important for LDP voters, and will likely influence Sunday’s results,” Hashimoto told reporters Thursday.
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