Just over a month after local elections in which Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) surprised even itself with resounding victories, the established parties’ local chapters appear to be on the ropes.

Earlier this month, Komeito, which had long partnered with Osaka Ishin to form a majority in the municipal and prefectural assemblies but was staunchly opposed to Osaka Ishin’s efforts to merge the city’s wards, abruptly flip-flopped. Komeito agreed to a referendum on the issue, and said it would work in a “positive manner” to help Osaka Ishin create a merger plan.

Immediately afterward, the Liberal Democratic Party’s Osaka chapter, which also opposed the merger plan, declared that, following the drubbing by Osaka Ishin at the polls in April, it had seen the light and would agree to a referendum on the issue.

With these announcements, a referendum before the next round of local elections in 2023 appears certain and Osaka voters seem to want it. Unlike the previous referendum in 2015, where the merger was defeated by a narrow margin, in a possible second referendum to merge Osaka’s 24 wards into four semiautonomous entities, the “yes” side now appears favored to win.

Why the about-face by Komeito and the LDP? There are two main reasons:

First, Osaka Ishin captured the majority of seats in the prefectural assembly and came up just a couple shy of a majority in the city assembly. They won partially at the expense of local LDP candidates.

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura and Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui also successfully swapped seats, defeating LDP and Komeito-backed candidates.

Voter anger at the LDP and Komeito for being obstinate over the merger issues, or worries that the parties were too entrenched, were also reasons Osaka Ishin did well. Another one lies with the national LDP and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe has a final domestic goal to accomplish before his term as LDP president ends in September 2021: constitutional revision. The July Upper House poll will determine if the LDP, Komeito, and Nippon Ishin no Kai, Osaka Ishin’s national party, can secure the two-thirds majority needed in both chambers to hold a national referendum on constitutional revision.

The parties are the best of friends in the Diet but throw mud at each other in Osaka over the merger plan. Years of squabbling between the three parties over what the rest of the country sees as a minor local issue appear to have finally snapped the patience of not only voters who cast their ballots for Osaka Ishin but also senior LDP and Komeito officials.

Yet Komeito’s promise to support a referendum within four years is already causing problems, as Matsui wants it in the autumn of next year, just after the Tokyo Olympics and while Matsui’s good friend Abe is still in power (assuming this summer’s Upper House election is not a disaster for the LDP).

The LDP’s change of position has not been without controversy in the Osaka chapter. Many feel the decision was forced on them by senior LDP officials in Tokyo in the hope that cooperation between the LDP, Komeito, and Osaka Ishin in Osaka translates into smoother cooperation between the LDP, Komeito and Nippon Ishin in the Diet. They worry, rightly, about accusations of betraying their campaign promises to oppose a merger referendum.

And what of the voters? An eventual referendum will decide the future of Osaka’s local democracy.

April’s elections showed voters are still willing to trust Osaka Ishin to that future. But a large number also voted for Osaka Ishin on the condition that the party first explains, in a way it hasn’t so far, what a merger will mean.

For anti-merger LDP and Komeito politicians, convincing voters there is no meaning to a merger and hoping that message has gotten through when the referendum is held, all the while remaining on good terms with their Nippon Ishin-friendly Tokyo bosses, is now the key to their political survival.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.

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