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Osaka's second merger push faces pitfalls from pandemic, Abe's poll woes

by Eric Johnston

STAFF WRITER

Osaka voters will once again face a referendum on merging the city’s 24 wards following a decision Friday on a plan that would create four large, semiautonomous wards.

The agreement on the referendum, likely to take place on Nov. 1, is a long-sought victory for Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura and their Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) political group. But it comes with significant political risks for both men due to continuing opposition, the national political scene and the coronavirus pandemic.

“This will be the final referendum, and we’ll follow its results,” Yoshimura told reporters after Friday’s decision.

The first referendum, in May 2015, was defeated by 11,000 votes out of more than 1.4 million cast. Since then, Osaka Ishin has pushed hard for a second chance but faced strong opposition from all other parties, including the local chapters of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, with whom it teams up to form a majority in the municipal assembly.

The LDP’s Osaka chapter is now split on the referendum. While its members in the municipal assembly are opposed, those in the prefectural assembly are in favor because they believe the referendum will have little impact on their constituencies. The Osaka merger plan would eliminate the current municipal assembly structure.

Citing financial concerns about other projects, including the 2025 Expo and local economic damage from the coronavirus, the LDP’s city council members say now is not the time to undertake a merger, especially when the economic benefits are unclear.

“Realizing the merger would involve huge costs and take a lot of time,” Osaka Municipal Assemblyman Hirotoshi Kawashima said in announcing the LDP’s opposition Friday.

Osaka Ishin officials believe last year’s strong election victories by Yoshimura, Matsui and Osaka Ishin, as well as Yoshimura’s surge in popularity from the coronavirus crisis, gives them a much better chance of winning the second referendum. Yet much will depend on two factors they cannot control: the national political scene and the coronavirus.

With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s polling numbers falling and last week’s arrest of Abe ally and former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai and his wife, rookie Upper House member Anri Kawai, on vote-buying charges likely to inflict further damage, there is talk of calling a snap election in late summer or early autumn, or at least of replacing Abe.

If the former happens, Komeito’s Osaka chapter might consider seeking postponement of the referendum in order to first concentrate party resources on a national election. But Osaka Ishin would strongly oppose postponement. That could sour relations with Komeito, whose supporters Osaka Ishin will need to get the referendum passed.

The second issue is the coronavirus. Yoshimura and Matsui will review the local situation in September and proceed with the referendum on Nov. 1 if they think it has been adequately contained by then.

But a spike in infections could force a postponement until next year. That worries merger supporters, who wonder if waiting will reduce their chances of winning. Further economic damage from the coronavirus will lead to demands for further financial assistance, and more voters could decide there’s no need to spend public money on a referendum until their businesses have recovered.

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