National / Politics

Osaka's governor-mayor duo quit in audacious bid to swap posts in name of merger referendum quest

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

In a highly unusual, controversial and politically risky move with local and national implications, Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui and Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura resigned their posts in protest Friday, in order to run for each other’s positions in snap elections next month.

Frustrated with what they say are continued moves by Komeito to block their efforts to merge the city of Osaka’s 24 wards, both leaders resigned in the hope of gaining popular support for their proposal in next month’s polls.

Their ultimate goal is to have Osaka’s assemblies approve a merger plan, which would then trigger a referendum on the issue later this year. A similar merger referendum, held in May 2015, was narrowly voted down.

“In November 2015, Yoshimura and I won office by telling Osakans our party, Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) wanted to put the merger plan to them one more time. We cooperated with Komeito in a committee to make this happen, but it became impossible to realize. We want to keep our campaign promise. So, we decided to resign and hold our elections on April 7, the same day as the Osaka prefectural and municipal assembly elections,” Matsui told reporters at a Friday evening news conference.

The decision to attempt a title swap was made for several reasons, including the way Japan’s election laws work. Simply resigning and running again for the same position would mean another election for governor and mayor would have to be held in November, when the current terms for the positions were due to expire. This way, Matsui said, there won’t be a need to hold two elections in the same year because the snap poll would ensure their new terms start from April.

Yoshimura admitted it could be a tough election, noting the Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito, and the Japan Communist Party, remain opposed to Osaka Ishin’s plan.

“We’ve accomplished about 90 percent of what we promised voters in November 2015. But the merger plan, the top priority, has yet to be realized,” he said.

At a separate news conference in Osaka Friday, Mitsuyoshi Hanaya, secretary-general of the LDP’s Osaka chapter, said his party wanted a governor and mayor it could support, one who is opposed to Osaka Ishin’s long-held quest for a merger.

“We’ll put an end to the merger plan,” Hanaya said.

Friday’s move ends a yearslong and often tense political marriage between the Matsui-led Osaka Ishin and Komeito, which was needed to form a majority in the municipal and prefectural assemblies.

Attention now turns to who might run against Matsui and Yoshimura — and who will support them.

On Friday, the Osaka chapters of the LDP and Komeito were meeting to discuss election strategies, whether an LDP-backed candidate might be officially endorsed by Komeito, and whether other opposition parties might also rally around a single “anti-Osaka Ishin” candidate.

There is concern among Osaka Ishin members about the Osaka Municipal Assembly election in particular. Losing just four seats to the LDP would give Komeito the choice of tying up with either Osaka Ishin or the LDP to form a majority, assuming Komeito keeps its seats.

The double election is also expected to impact July’s Upper House election. Nippon Ishin no Kai, the national party also headed by Matsui, holds a total of 11 seats, including five up for re-election. At Friday’s news conference, Matsui also said Nippon Ishin would field candidates against Komeito in the next Lower House election.

Nippon Ishin is a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to revise the Constitution, and Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga are close to Matsui in particular. A loss by Matsui or Yoshimura, or losses by Osaka Ishin in the municipal or prefectural assembly, could spell trouble for the five Upper House Nippon Ishin candidates — and for Abe’s relationship with the party.

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