OSAKA – Seeking to shore up his base ahead of his Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election in September, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told members of the LDP’s Osaka chapter Friday evening that he is opposed to a plan to merge the city’s 24 wards.
Abe is visiting Osaka this weekend to consult the local members, who oppose the plan led by Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui and his local political group Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) to merge the city into four semi-autonomous regions. Matsui also heads the national Nippon Ishin no Kai party.
“When we explained the merger plan and asked the prime minister to oppose it, he said clearly that he was opposed,” Hidemi Asakura, secretary-general of the local LDP chapter, told reporters afterward.
Matsui and Abe have long been close, with the Osaka governor frequently meeting with the prime minister. Nippon Ishin’s policies usually overlap those of the LDP, and the party is known in Osaka as the de facto “Osaka branch” of the LDP. Osaka LDP leaders have often complained that Abe spends more time with Matsui than with members of his own party.
But with Abe now floundering in the polls due to a string of scandals, he faces growing opposition within his own party for a third term as LDP president and thus continuing as prime minister.
Thus the attempt to drum up support from the LDP’s Osaka members by opposing the merger plan, which will require a referendum, as the party’s presidential election will be decided by both its Diet members and representatives from LDP chapters in all 47 prefectures.
Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who is expected to challenge Abe for the top post, is widely popular among the regional chapters and drew many of the younger Osaka members to a rally earlier this year.
“The prime minister said that it wasn’t a good idea to hold lots of referendums,” Lower House LDP member Akira Sato said at Friday night’s news briefing. Abe’s announcement is expected to be officially endorsed at a meeting of the chapter on Saturday.
But Matsui, who was at a separate meeting Friday evening, dismissed the remarks.
“It’s just lip service by (the prime minister) to the LDP prefectural chapter,” he told reporters.
A previous merger plan was rejected by voters in a 2015 referendum. But Matsui and Osaka Ishin have since revised the proposal and want to hold another referendum.