Voters in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, will head to the polls Sunday to elect a new mayor in a key local race ahead of next month’s Upper House election, with an Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) candidate reportedly the frontrunner in a closely contested campaign.

Three candidates are vying for the post, which was vacated in April after the previous mayor, Osami Takeyama, was forced to resign due to a political funds scandal.

Takeyama had been a staunch critic of efforts by Osaka Ishin, the local political group affiliated with the national Nippon Ishin no Kai, to merge Osaka Prefecture’s cities and towns into a structure akin to Tokyo’s 23 wards.

Hideki Nagafuji, 42, is officially backed by Osaka Ishin. He is a former member of the Osaka Prefectural Assembly and ran in the 2017 Sakai mayoral election won by Takeyama. Kyodo News and local Osaka media have reported that Nagafuji is a slight favorite to come out on top.

Nagafuji has the support of Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura and Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui, who leads both Osaka Ishin and Nippon Ishin. Nagafuji has pledged to lead a clean and financially transparent administration if elected.

“I will not take political donations from either business groups or professional associations and will have a tax expert check the political donation reports,” he said in announcing his candidacy.

His main challenger is Tomoaki Nomura, 45, who is running as an independent but backed by a loose coalition of those who are opposed to Osaka Ishin and its merger plan. These include members of not only the major national opposition parties but also some members of the local chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party who are strongly against the merger plan.

“Takeyama did the right thing by resigning, but approving an Osaka Ishin merger plan for Osaka city would lead to an eventual merger of Sakai and the prefecture as well, and a loss of local autonomy,” Nomura said at a rally earlier this week.

A third candidate, Takashi Tachibana, 51, from The Association to Protect Citizens From NHK political group, is also running but considered a long shot.

For the LDP in particular, Sunday’s race represents a difficult challenge.

It comes two months after Osaka voters handed the local chapter larger than expected defeats in the races for governor, Osaka mayor, and in the Osaka Prefectural Assembly, where Osaka Ishin won a simple majority for the first time.

The scale of April’s losses forced the LDP’s Osaka chapter, which long opposed the merger plan, to agree to it, a move that created dissent and division within the chapter as many local LDP members remain opposed to the plan.

A loss by Nomura in the Sakai election would likely create further splits within the LDP Osaka chapter, giving a boost to Osaka Ishin’s candidates next month.

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