Nearly three years after voters narrowly rejected an effort backed by Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) to restructure two dozen wards in the city of Osaka into fewer but larger, more autonomous zones, the party is gearing up for one more try despite a tight political schedule, uncertain public support and continued political opposition.

Osaka Ishin, the local political group affiliated with the national Nippon Ishin no Kai party, failed to push through its merger plan in 2015. The proposal was strongly opposed by local chapters of the Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito and the Japanese Communist Party. Osaka Ishin has a plurality in the municipal assembly but often cooperates with Komeito to form a majority.

Formal debate over the latest revision to the Osaka Ishin proposal began last week. Insisting a streamlined city bureaucracy would be more cost-efficient, the party, which includes Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, wants the city’s 24 administrative wards to be reorganized into four large districts that would have more political autonomy, especially over their tax revenues and budgets.

The first district would include the heavily industrialized wards in the northern part of the city and port area that lie along the Yodo River and border Hyogo Prefecture.

The second district would be the wealthier wards near JR Osaka Station that run east to Osaka Castle and to the south. The third district would be made up of the central Osaka business and entertainment districts as well as the southern port area. And the final district would be the area that includes the more working-class districts and middle-class suburbs of the city’s southeast.

“The four-district plan was made with an eye toward balancing out tax revenues in each district, so distribution doesn’t heavily favor one district over another,” Yoshimura said earlier this month.

Opposition to this plan is especially strong among local LDP and Komeito members, and Osaka Ishin will face tough debate in the coming weeks.

Komeito has proposed an alternate reorganization of the city that would leave the 24 wards in place but integrate them into eight more powerful zones, making another public referendum unnecessary.

Osaka Ishin has been tepid about supporting this approach.

For the party, its four-district proposal may be its last chance to make good on the fundamental reason for its existence: to merge the city’s wards and then, eventually, the prefecture and the city. But the political clock is ticking.

Matsui and Yoshimura aim to hold another referendum on their proposal in September or October, despite concerns about whether the municipal assembly will have enough time to thoroughly debate the issue and reach some sort of agreement.

Even former Osaka Mayor and Gov. Toru Hashimoto, who with Matsui co-founded both Osaka Ishin and Nippon Ishin, has warned Matsui and Yoshimura that this year could be too early to vote.

“Comments (by Matsui and Yoshimura) about realizing campaign promises to hold a referendum before their terms of office expire are the biggest reason why the Osaka merger project isn’t expanding its support base,” Hashimoto wrote on Twitter last month.

Matsui and Yoshimura are up for re-election in autumn 2019. Preceding that is a full local, national and even international political schedule for Osaka that is likely to limit the amount of time the merger plan can be debated.

The decision on the site for the 2025 World Expo, which Osaka wants to host, will be made in November. If Osaka wins, it means preparations must begin in 2019, starting with prefectural and municipal approval of a budget for the event.

In spring 2019, nationwide local elections that include races for the Osaka municipal and prefectural assemblies will take place, with an Upper House election expected in summer. These elections could complicate efforts between Osaka Ishin and the LDP and Komeito to reach a deal.

And with last week’s announcement that Osaka will host the Group of 20 summit next year, Matsui and Yoshimura, as well as the city and the prefecture, now have the additional responsibility of working with the central government on logistical and security preparations to welcome 20 world leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Considering this jam-packed schedule, finding the time to broker a merger agreement that would succeed in both passing the municipal assembly and convincing the public to vote for it — all by the end of 2019 — appears difficult at best.

But agreeing to postpone a referendum until after next autumn’s mayoral and gubernatorial elections also carries the risk of alienating voters to the point where they give up on Osaka Ishin completely. If that happens, Matsui and Yoshimura may no longer be around when 2019 turns into 2020.

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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