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With their key political goal of merging Osaka’s administrative wards defeated for a second time, the focus for many in local political party Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) has turned to how — or even if — they can continue under a new generation of leadership, as well as what it means for their future in Osaka and, through their affiliated national political party Nippon Ishin no Kai, on the national political stage.

Sunday night’s rejection of the plan to merge Osaka’s 24 wards into four semi-autonomous wards went down to the wire. Despite polls by local media in September and early October showing supporters outnumbering those who were opposed, the gap narrowed during the last few days of October.

In the end, 692,996 votes (50.6%) were cast against the measure while 675,829 votes (49.4%) supported it — a margin of just over 17,000 votes. The turnout rate was 62.35%, down about four and a half points from the first referendum in 2015.

“We lost because my efforts to convince people were insufficient,” said Osaka mayor and Osaka Ishin co-leader Ichiro Matsui Sunday night. “I have no regrets, but I’ll finish out my term as mayor, which ends in 2023. I will turn leadership over to the next generation of Osaka Ishin politicians like Osaka. Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura.”

The result also raises tough questions for Osaka Ishin ally Komeito. The party sent senior leaders to Osaka to drum up support for the merger, despite opposing the idea five years ago in the previous referendum.

But polls by media outlets also showed only about half of Komeito members voted yes to the merger this time. Komeito and Osaka Ishin cooperate with each other in the municipal assembly to form a majority, but there was much anger within the party chapter about its decision to back Osaka Ishin’s efforts on the merger.

The referendum votes are counted in Osaka on Sunday. | KYODO
The referendum votes are counted in Osaka on Sunday. | KYODO

“We accept the results of the referendum and reflect on where we need to improve,” said Komeito Osaka chapter head and Lower House member Shigeki Sato.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga refrained Monday from commenting directly on the outcome, saying only that Osaka’s efforts to debate the future structure of the city had made waves.

The result could also be problematic for the Liberal Democratic Party and relations between its Osaka chapter and central party headquarters.

Osaka LDP members had long been opposed to the merger and joined forces with other opposition parties, including the Japanese Communist Party, to campaign against it.

But the relationship between Suga and Matsui has long been close, to the frustration of Osaka LDP members, and the LDP and Nippon Ishin no Kai are basically in agreement about most issues in the Diet, including the need for constitutional revision and a strong security state.

Powerful LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai was said to be personally opposed to the Osaka merger, but apparently did not want to get involved with the issue too deeply, given Suga’s relationship with Matsui. Top LDP officials may have been at least wary of the political consequences at election time.

Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui (right) and Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura apologize for losing the referendum at a news conference on Sunday. | KYODO
Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui (right) and Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura apologize for losing the referendum at a news conference on Sunday. | KYODO

Local media reports last month suggested Kyoto and Hyogo prefectural LDP chapters were worried that if the Osaka merger went through, it would benefit Nippon Ishin, which might decide to run more candidates against local LDP incumbents in the next general election.

Had the referendum passed, Matsui, Yoshimura or both were expected to run for a Diet seat in Osaka, which might have encouraged more of their allies elsewhere to seek office.

Asked about the future of LDP and Komeito relations at the national level given that the parties’ Osaka chapters were on opposite sides of the merger issue, Komeito’s Sato said that it was not a problem between the two parties at central government level.

However, Toru Hashimoto, former Osaka governor, mayor and co-founder of Osaka Ishin, suggested the result was actually a good thing for a party that needed to keep Osaka Ishin happy at the local level and the LDP happy at the national level.

He noted that Komeito was praised by Matsui for supporting the merger, but lost, which is what many Komeito members wanted.

“Just looking at media exit polls, a large number of unaffiliated voters opposed the merger. But if they were actual Komeito members who just told the media they were unaffiliated in order to not upset the Komeito leadership, it was a great political strategy.”

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