National / Politics

Osaka leaders win in elections to swap roles, but merger prospects unclear

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Osaka voters appear to have done little to shift the political landscape from where it was before going to the polls Sunday, allowing Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) leaders to swap positions as governor and mayor.

The Osaka Ishin-backed gubernatorial candidate, former Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura, 43, beat Tadakazu Konishi, 64, who was backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito.

Former Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, 55, beat the Akira Yanagimoto in the Osaka mayoral race. Yanagimoto was also backed by the LDP and Komeito.

Osaka Ishin captured a majority in the prefectural assembly election held the same day, but failed to get a majority in the municipal assembly.

Osaka Ishin’s double-victory is likely to give momentum to the party’s drive for a local referendum on its proposal to merge the 24 wards of the city of Osaka and thereby reduce administrative costs.

In 2015, Osaka Ishin managed to initiate a referendum on the same merger proposal, but voters rejected it by a narrow margin. Still, that hasn’t stopped the party, which has been working to get a similar referendum on the ballot — only to be met with strong opposition from Komeito, the second-largest party in the municipal assembly.

This prompted Matsui and Yoshimura to simultaneously resign and seek to swap positions through Sunday’s votes, an unusual tactic meant to drum up support for the merger plan.

Following their victories, Matsui and Yoshimura told reporters that the people of Osaka had spoken and voted for them to continue their efforts to merge the city’s wards.

Despite a majority in the prefectural assembly, Osaka Ishin almost certainly has to tie up with Komeito to form a majority in the city assembly. That in turn could once again lead to a standoff over the merger plans between the two parties.

“There is no doubt there is opposition to the merger plan among people in Osaka city. Many don’t understand what it is. So we have to have a polite discussion about it,” Matsui said. “But Komeito also has to look at the results of the election and think about how they are going to accept them.”

As governor, Yoshimura said his role will also be to continue to push for the merger. He added that it’s success would help ignite a larger debate nationwide.

“An Osaka merger could influence discussion in other cities around Japan on improving local growth. They may not adopt a merger plan like the Osaka plan. But it’s important that they think more about ways to grow their regional economies,” Yoshimura said.

Having failed to secure a majority in the city’s assembly could put a damper on Osaka Ishin’s quest for a municipal merger, regardless of their victory in the prefectural assembly, where 88 seats were up for grabs. The party won 51 seats there.

To merge the wards, a local referendum would need to be initiated with support from a majority of both the municipal and prefectural assemblies.

Prior to the elections, Osaka Ishin had a plurality in both assemblies and had to cooperate with Komeito in order to form a majority.

Komeito has remained staunchly opposed to Osaka Ishin’s efforts to eliminate the city’s 24 wards and create four large semiautonomous wards and do away with the current city council structure.

Osaka Ishin claims the merger is necessary to reduce costs and improve bureaucratic services. The LDP, Komeito and other opposition parties say the plan is costly and offers no clear benefits.

The party’s failure to capture a majority of municipal assembly seats could also likely impact the fortunes of Nippon Ishin no Kai, the national branch of Osaka Ishin, as Upper House elections loom in July.

Sunday’s results could also affect what has been a cordial and cooperative relationship among Matsui, Yoshimura, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, much to the irritation of the Osaka LDP chapter. With the failure of Osaka Ishin to capture local majorities, the LDP is looking to build momentum in order to challenge Nippon Ishin candidates in July.

At a news conference Sunday night, Osaka Ishin Secretary-General Yutaka Imai echoed the comments made by the party’s winning candidates. He said the results reflected the will of the Osaka people and that other parties, especially Komeito, need to pay attention to how the majority voted.

“It was tough election as we were up against candidates supported by all of the major parties, from the LDP to the Japanese Communist Party. But this election was not only a judgment on the merger plan but also the Osaka Ishin reforms of the past 10 years,” Imai said.

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