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On Nov. 1, for the second time in five years, Osaka city voters will cast their ballots in a referendum on whether to merge the city’s 24 wards.

Approval of the merger would provide the plan’s biggest political supporter, Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party), with a huge victory. Defeat would likely mean the resignation of its leader, Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui, who is close to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and a possible backlash against the party for having failed to achieve its signature goal.

What is the merger plan that is being put to a referendum?

KYODO GRAPHIC
KYODO GRAPHIC

The city of Osaka has a population of 2.7 million and is currently administered by the mayor and one municipal assembly, while the ward heads are political appointees.

Under the plan now being circulated to voters, merging the wards would mean that both the mayor’s position and the current municipal assembly would disappear. Four new, large, semiautonomous wards would be created, with each having a population of between 600,000 and 750,000 residents, who would directly elect the head of their ward as well as the ward assembly.

The plan also states that each ward would have more authority to make decisions regarding the needs of residents, although the current 24 ward offices would continue to serve as information centers for the ward in which they were located.

If the referendum is passed, it would take about four years to put the merger in place, with the new system up and running by Jan. 1, 2025.

Why is the referendum happening?

The Nov. 1 vote is actually the second merger referendum on the issue — the first was narrowly defeated in 2015.

But afterwards, Matsui and Nippon Ishin vowed to try again. They spent five years attempting to overcome opposition in the local assemblies, especially by the local chapters of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, without success.

Progress was only made after Matsui, who was then Osaka governor, and fellow Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) member Hirofumi Yoshimura, then the mayor, resigned and successfully ran for each other’s positions in the April 2019 local elections, which was backed up with solid victories by Osaka Ishin members in the municipal and prefectural assembly polls. Their victories eventually helped force the LDP and Komeito chapters to work out a deal on the merger plan and let a referendum go forward.

What are the reasons offered in support of the merger?

Osaka Ishin says a merger will allow each ward to concentrate its local financial resources more efficiently on local services, especially social welfare for its aging population.

Supporters also hope the new, large wards will be better positioned to offer tax breaks and other incentives to attract not only Japanese firms from other parts of the country but also foreign firms that might otherwise be based in Tokyo.

Finally, the merger is seen as a way to end areas of current municipal redundancy in which services are also offered by Osaka Prefecture. The Nov. 1 referendum merger is only for the city of Osaka. There would be no change to the prefecture’s current structure, which includes a governor and 88 prefectural assembly members.

What are the reasons offered for opposing the merger?

Opposition to the merger is being led by some LDP members of the city assembly and the established opposition parties.

They say that projections of a better financial future after the merger are too rosy, that dividing the city into four wards will create further socioeconomic gaps between the wealthier wards and less prosperous ones, and that the quality of citizen services will actually decrease, as people now living in smaller wards will be crowded into ones that are much larger, leading to less efficient bureaucracies.

They add that, given uncertain local economic damage from the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the current Osaka Municipal Assembly should be concentrating on how to ensure more financial assistance for firms and individuals.

Most recent Osaka media polls show that the percentage of those who say they support the merger is greater than those who say they are opposed. However, a recent poll by Asahi TV also showed that 15% were undecided.

Does the merger referendum have national political implications?

Approval of the referendum would mean the accomplishment of Osaka Ishin’s core goal, one the party has pursued for nearly a decade.

If a general election was held in the weeks or months afterwards, it could provide the national party, Nippon Ishin, with a boost. On the other hand, a second defeat, Matsui has said, would mean his resignation, and possibly Yoshimura’s exit. That could spell trouble for Nippon Ishin’s Diet members at election time, as Matsui and Yoshimura are the faces of the party.

Though an opposition party, Nippon Ishin shares most of the same policy positions as the LDP, and Matsui and Suga are close. But the referendum could prove to be a delicate issue for Suga and the LDP. If it passes, the prime minister, as well as coalition partner Komeito, would be stuck between an energized Matsui and Nippon Ishin and angry local LDP and Komeito members who bitterly opposed the merger. If it fails, Suga loses an ally in Matsui, and members of Nippon Ishin might face the choice of disbanding the party after it failed to complete its basic mission, or merging it with other parties.

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