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Osaka voters went to the polls Sunday in a historic referendum that will decide the future structure of the city government.

At issue is whether residents of the city support or oppose a proposal to abolish the current municipal structure, including the assembly and mayor’s position, and merge Osaka’s 24 wards into five large semi-autonomous districts. If approved, the merger would take place by 2017.

If rejected, the merger effort will be finished, and, most likely, it would force Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, who have staked their political reputations on the proposal, to resign.

Some 2.1 million residents were eligible to vote, excluding those with special permanent residency or permanent residency visas, as is the case in some other countries.

Interest appeared high and, thanks partially to good weather and referendum rules that allowed for campaigning Sunday, the final turnout rate was widely predicted to be above the 2011 double mayoral and gubernatorial election rate of 60.92 percent.

“This is your chance to change Osaka. It doesn’t matter if you like me personally or not. What matters is that we need to improve Osaka and only the merger will do it,” Hashimoto told voters Sunday.

Most media polls over the past month have shown, however, that more residents oppose the merger than support it. Fears of reduced citizen services, especially for child care, education and the elderly, are particularly strong among female voters. Many voters said they do not understand how, exactly, a merger would affect their day-to-day lives.

Only Hashimoto’s Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) party, which does not have a majority in the city assembly, supports the merger.

The Osaka chapters of all established political parties are opposed, saying a merger would decrease the quality of citizen services and widen social and income disparities, especially between the larger, wealthier wards in the northern part of the city and the smaller and less prosperous areas in the south.

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