To merge or not to merge? That is the question Osaka hopes to finally answer as the campaign for Osaka governor kicked off Thursday morning.

It’s an election being watched closely not only in Osaka but also in Tokyo by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who have long been on unusually close terms with the top leaders of Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) but must back Liberal Democratic Party candidates running against them.

The results are also expected to impact the fortunes of Osaka-based Upper House election candidates from the LDP, Komeito and Osaka Ishin’s national political party, Nippon Ishin no Kai.

The governor’s election, the mayoral election and polls for municipal and prefectural members take place on April 7. The gubernatorial race pits the local Osaka Ishin candidate, former Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura, 43, against Tadakazu Konishi, 64, who is backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito.

The official election campaign period of the Osaka mayoral election begins on Sunday.

In the mayoral election, former Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, 55, who also leads Osaka Ishin, will run against former Osaka Municipal Assemblyman Akira Yanagimoto, 45, who has the backing of the LDP and Komeito.

Other political parties opposed to the Osaka merger, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Japanese Communist Party, are unofficially encouraging their members to back Konishi and Yanagimoto.

All of Osaka’s local elections are focused on a single issue: efforts by Osaka Ishin to hold another referendum on merging Osaka’s 24 wards into four semi-autonomous districts. Osaka Ishin made this a fundamental campaign pledge in the November 2015 elections for governor and mayor. But opposition by the LDP, Komeito and other established parties in the municipal and prefectural assemblies, where Osaka Ishin has a plurality but not a majority, have created a deadlock that candidates hope will finally be broken on April 7.

“This is the perfect opportunity to say ‘no’ to Ishin’s politics. There’s a risk of higher costs and worse bureaucratic service under (Osaka Ishin’s) merger plan,” Konishi said in a stump speech Thursday morning.

At a separate rally later Thursday morning, Yoshimura fired back.

“We’re keeping our 2015 campaign pledge to hold a referendum on the merger issue. The real reason why all of the other established political parties are opposed to the merger plan is because they’re trying to guard their territory,” he said.

Under Osaka Ishin’s merger plan, the wards would have more control over their budgets for issues such as child care, education and social welfare services. Functions such as tourism promotion, transportation infrastructure, industrial revitalization and urban development would all be handled by the prefecture.

Osaka Ishin says the merger is a necessary cost-cutting measure that will decrease bureaucratic redundancy and increase efficiency.

But the party has been unable to explain how the merger will specifically benefit local residents and businesses, such as by lowering personal or corporate taxes. The LDP and Komeito have long said that merging Osaka’s wards and eliminating the Osaka Municipal Assembly and mayoral position would actually increase the financial burden on residents, with no guarantee of improved bureaucratic services.

In addition to touting its merger plan, Osaka Ishin’s strategy for the elections is to tout its experience and results, especially in terms of Osaka’s international relations.

“It was under Osaka Ishin that Osaka won the 2025 World Expo and the right to host this year’s Group of Twenty summit,” Matsui said at the rally for Yoshimura on Thursday morning.

But at a meeting to drum up support for Konishi and Yanagimoto early Thursday afternoon, senior officials from the LDP and Komeito dismissed such claims, saying it was Abe and the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition that used their overseas connections to win the expo and who decided to give Osaka the G20 meeting. There was also criticism of Yoshimura and Matsui for their decision to quit and run for each other’s positions.

“It’s not good to have the Osaka governor and mayor resign their positions now, with the G20 coming up and with the need to start preparations for the expo,” said Komeito Lower House member Shigeki Sato, who heads the party’s Osaka chapter.

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