A year after Osaka city voters rejected Osaka Ishin no Kai’s most fundamental policy proposal in a referendum, the party finds itself heading south.

Ever since the referendum, the party has failed to gain traction outside the prefecture, unable to fill the void left by the retirement of its charismatic founder, and heads into the July Upper House election, and a possible simultaneous Lower House election, low in the opinion polls.

With the announcement earlier this month that former Osaka Ishin ally-turned-adversary Yoshimi Watanabe, once head of now defunct Your Party, will run with Osaka Ishin backing in the Upper House race, the party hopes to once again create an alternative to the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition and traditional opposition parties.

But other Osaka Ishin members are concerned that endorsing Watanabe, who in 2014 was accused of breaking the Political Funds Control Law, bringing down Your Party, will alienate voters fed up with money scandals.

Aware of the potential backlash, Watanabe insisted last week he was clean.

“I was acquitted after a thorough investigation by the (Tokyo) prosecutor’s office,” Watanabe said at a news conference May 16.

Osaka Ishin no Kai is the Japanese name of both the national party and local political group, except that the party spells Osaka with hiragana rather than kanji.

The other problem, especially for members loyal to Osaka Ishin movement cofounder Toru Hashimoto, who exited local politics in December after finishing his term as mayor, is the fear that Watanabe, a former Lower House veteran with a reputation for being a control freak, will try to take over.

Though close at first, Hashimoto accused Watanabe of being “Machiavellian,” and their relations soured.

When he announced he would run with Osaka Ishin support, however, Watanabe said he was not seeking a leadership position and said his shared political philosophy with Osaka Ishin was what convinced him to seek its support.

“I recognized that Osaka Ishin returned to its political origins to work on local reform and I agree that over-concentration in Tokyo is a problem that needs corrected. I’m just one person, so it doesn’t mean I will be a new power within the party. Such concerns are imaginary,” Watanabe said.

Since their push to merge the city of Osaka’s wards was defeated in the May 17, 2015, referendum Osaka Ishin has had few successes.

Following Hashimoto’s retirement, Osaka Ishin hasn’t done well at the polls, with a virtually unknown candidate in neighboring Kyoto losing a Lower House by-election last month.

During a closed-door party meeting in Osaka on May 14, Hashimoto reportedly warned that the only way Osaka Ishin can survive is to expand its brand, and that unless this happens, it will be in danger of folding.

Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, formerly of the Liberal Democratic Party, is seen in Osaka as less controversial than the independent-minded Hashimoto. But he faces deep public skepticism, and worries within his own party, about whether he can, or even should, attempt to lead a national Ishin movement.

The problem of going national starts with the party’s regional name, which includes “Osaka.” Matsui and others want to keep it, but Watanabe dislikes it. Nevertheless, it is unlikely to change before the July poll.

In the meantime, Hashimoto, as spiritual head of Osaka Ishin and in his official role as the party’s legal adviser, is attempting to spread its message — a combination of policies to cut costs, privatize public services, curb the power of public-sector unions and achieve more local autonomy from Tokyo.

Last week, he traveled to Fukuoka, where he’s always had support, to address the inauguration of Fukuoka Ishin no Kai.

Recent media polls meanwhile show the party is continuing to struggle.

An Asahi Shimbun survey at the beginning of this month found that only 8 percent of respondents plan to vote for Osaka Ishin in the Upper House election’s proportional representation races. A Yomiuri Shimbun poll a couple weeks ago said only 5 percent would do so.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga are close to the party and still counting on its support to help them achieve their dream of amending the Constitution.

But that has not convinced voters nationwide that Osaka Ishin is anything other than a collection of local Osaka politicians loyal to Abe who don’t understand the rest of the country.

In recent weeks, Matsui has attempted to reach out to a broader section of the public by criticizing the opposition parties for focusing too much on the divisive new security laws that expand the capabilities of the Self-Defense Forces, saying Osaka Ishin was thinking about other issues.

“Just focusing on one issue in the Upper House election isn’t likely to win voter support. What happens to issues like medical care, social welfare services, emergency response measures, public works projects?” Matsui asked local reporters last week.

The party is expected to announce its final platform for the pivotal Upper House election by the end of the month, he added.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.

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