Many in Japan’s political world are asking themselves what the effect of Sunday’s referendum in Osaka will be, and whether it will indeed mark the end of Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s political career.
By a razor-thin margin of just over 10,000 votes out of 1.4 million cast, local voters said “no” to Hashimoto’s goal of merging Osaka’s 24 wards into five semi-autonomous wards. Turnout for the referendum was 66.83 percent, 5.91 points higher than that of Osaka’s double gubernatorial and mayoral elections in 2011.
Had the majority voted in favor of Hashimoto’s plan, it would have eliminated the current municipal assembly and mayoral positions.
Looking anything but crushed by the loss, a smiling, relaxed Hashimoto spoke at a news conference following the results. Asked about his future, he said repeatedly he would retire from politics when his term finishes in December.
“Do you want me to say that there’s a 20,000 percent chance I won’t return to politics?” he asked jokingly, referring to his comment in 2007 that there was a 20,000 percent chance he would not run for Osaka governor before he went ahead and did so.
His retirement announcement was a particular blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration. It was no secret that they supported Hashimoto’s efforts at the local level, in the hopes of gaining the support of opposition Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) to amend the Constitution. Hashimoto had helped found the party with Lower House member Kenji Eda.
Following Hashimoto’s announcement that he would not seek re-election as mayor when his term expires, Eda said he would step down as party leader, blaming the loss on his lack of leadership.
But the local chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party opposed the merger. And some LDP Osaka members were particularly upset with Abe’s decision to visit neighboring Kobe and Wakayama Prefecture over the weekend, saying it was a not-so-subtle message to Osaka LDP supporters to ignore the local chapter’s stance.
Abe’s move was also criticized by LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki, who warned last week that local matters are best left to local party chapters. With the Osaka merger proposal now defeated, the LDP will have to move to shore up relations with its Osaka chapter if it expects to do well there in next year’s Upper House elections.
The administration’s past efforts to intervene in local politics has produced some disasters for the party. Over the past year and a half, the Nago mayoral election, and the governor’s seats in Saga, Shiga and Okinawa, among other races, have gone to either anti-LDP or anti-Abe candidates.
For Ishin no To, though, the future is anything but clear. The party is in disarray and speculation is rife some of its members will defect to the Democratic Party of Japan or even the LDP.
Ishin no To and DPJ leaders sounded each other out about cooperation earlier this month. On Monday, DPJ Secretary-General Yukio Edano told reporters that the party will watch carefully what happens with Ishin no To, but that the DPJ will cooperate as much as possible with others if their political and policy stances are shared by the DPJ.
In the case of the LDP, many Ishin no To members, especially from the Osaka area, are former LDP members.
“Without Hashimoto, Ishin no To is finished as a political party. Many members will drift to other parties, as opposition party realignment continues,” said Yuji Yoshitomi, an Osaka-based freelance journalist who has covered Hashimoto’s career extensively.
“But Hashimoto may not be finished as a politician. (Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide) Suga values his political acumen. If Hashimoto is courted by the LDP, he may enter national politics, though I don’t think it will be until the next Lower House election, not the Upper House election,” Yoshitomi added.
For the moment, the Abe administration appears anything but pleased with Sunday’s result and Hashimoto’s decision to retire. Suga said Monday that quitting after a defeat was very much in character for Hashimoto.
But the Abe administration hoped cooperation with Ishin no To would help it control a two-thirds majority in the Upper House so that it could push constitutional reform through both houses of the Diet. The LDP already controls a two-thirds majority in the Lower House.
For his part, Hashimoto said that constitutional reform is an issue that has to be debated very carefully and openly. He said the Osaka referendum might serve as an example of how to proceed if revising the Constitution is someday put to a national referendum.
Finally, there is Komeito. Like the LDP, Komeito officials in Tokyo intervened, calling for the referendum to go ahead even though the party’s Osaka chapter was opposed to the merger.
The result was confusion in voters’ minds and a loss of trust in Komeito that could come back to haunt the party in next year’s election — especially in Osaka, where the party is particularly strong.
But with Hashimoto exiting the mayor’s chair in December and Ishin no To likely to lose many of its members, Sunday’s results have created unexpected political turbulence in both the ruling and opposition parties that will likely take a while to be resolved.