National / Politics

Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui eyes second referendum on merger plan during nationwide elections in 2019

Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui eyes second referendum on merger plan during nationwide elections in April 2019

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui announced Monday that a second referendum on whether to merge Osaka’s wards might be held during the nationwide local elections in April 2019, six months later than the governor and his supporters originally hoped for.

“We haven’t given up on a referendum this autumn. But no matter how delayed, we want a decision to be made on the merger plan within the term of the current Osaka prefectural and municipal assemblies,” Matsui told reporters.

The elections, including those for Osaka’s assemblies, are expected to be held a year from now. Matsui heads both the national party Nippon Ishin no Kai as well as Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka), a local political group that has a plurality but not a majority in both the municipal and prefectural assemblies. To form a majority, Osaka Ishin must work with Komeito.

“While there are advantages in terms of the costs of holding the referendum at the same time as the local elections, we can’t decide on our own. We’ll have to discuss the timing with Komeito,” Matsui added.

A joint prefectural and municipal committee is currently considering a proposal that would integrate the city’s 24 wards into four large wards with more autonomy. The plan is strongly backed by Matsui and Osaka Ishin but has faced resistance from the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito. Discussions on the merger plan and the timing of a possible referendum are expected to continue when the committee meets again Friday.

For Nippon Ishin, passage of an Osaka merger plan remains its key policy goal.

In the first referendum in 2015, voters rejected — by just 10,000 votes out of 1.4 million cast — a proposal that would have reorganized the city into five wards. Following the defeat, former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who co-founded the Osaka and Nippon Ishin movements along with Matsui, announced he would step down from politics when his term ended in December 2015.

But Matsui and other Osaka Ishin members decided to continue to push for the merger and hold another referendum by this autumn. As opposition over the plan from Komeito continued and negotiations became bogged down, however, Hashimoto warned that if Matsui rushed to a referendum, voters would likely reject it again.

The merger plan is necessary, Osaka Ishin insists, to save money and improve local administrative efficiency at a time when Osaka’s population is aging and shrinking. Opponents in the assemblies are concerned a merger will create more administrative problems than it solves, and may lead to more pronounced socio-economic gaps between the wealthier northern and central parts of the city and less prosperous areas elsewhere.

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