The results of the Osaka gubernatorial and mayoral elections on Sunday may suggest that local voters are still not happy with the status quo of Kansai’s largest prefecture and city and are seeking reforms. The landslide wins by the incumbent governor and mayoral candidate backed by the Osaka Ishin no Kai group testify that its founder, Toru Hashimoto, who still maintains he will retire as a politician when his term as mayor ends next month, remains immensely popular. Still, members of the group should realize they need to cooperate — and not repeat their confrontation — with other political forces if they want to pursue their agenda, including reviving Hashimoto’s once-rejected pet project of reorganizing Osaka’s administrative structure.
The re-election of Hashimoto’s key ally, Ichiro Matsui, as governor of Osaka and the victory of former Lower House member Hirofumi Yoshimura — his hand-picked successor as Osaka mayor — comes six months after the plan to break up the city of Osaka into special districts and reorganize the division of labor with Osaka Prefecture was rejected in a referendum by local voters. The victory of Matsui and Yoshimura by large margins over candidates fielded by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party — with the unusual support of local chapters of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and Japanese Communist Party — may build momentum for the Osaka Ishin group to revive the reorganization initiative, on which opposition narrowly exceeded support in the May referendum.
But it would be premature to take the outcome of Sunday’s elections as outright support for Osaka’s reorganization, which Hashimoto tried to sell as the key to eliminating the waste and redundancies of the dual administrative structure of the city and the prefecture, thereby helping reverse the longtime decline in Osaka’s fortunes. Voters who supported the Osaka Ishin candidates may see in the group’s agenda a hope for change, but the promised administrative reforms do not automatically ensure economic revival.
The Osaka Ishin group — which swept the gubernatorial and mayoral elections for the second time in four years — is the largest force in both the prefectural and municipal assemblies but lacks a simple majority in either of them. Despite the sweeping victories of Matsui and Yoshimura, the group still needs the cooperation of other parties in the assemblies to get its agenda moving forward, including putting the Osaka reorganization plan back on the table and possibly holding another referendum. To win public support for his agenda, Hashimoto, on the back of his strong popularity, often resorted to his style of confrontation with other forces as opponents of his promised reforms. But as has happened with many of his initiatives, repetition of such confrontation may just leave the group’s policies in gridlock.
Yoshimura has made it clear that he will carry on Hashimoto’s policies, and Matsui said after his re-election that Osaka Ishin would try to win voters’ consent to an amended version of the Osaka reorganization plan within the next four years. If they intend to get things done, they should start by working with other forces in the assemblies. If Osaka Ishin and the other parties agree on the need to do something about the local administrative redundancies and inefficiencies, there should be areas where they can cooperate for quick actions.
The election results will have national political repercussions. Hashimoto and Matsui broke away from Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), which they helped create just last year, and established a new national party of their own just ahead of the Osaka polls. Osaka Ishin’s performance Sunday may bode well for the new party in the Upper House election next summer. On the other hand, the split of Ishin no To — which Hashimoto and his men have even unilaterally declared disbanded — has cast a pall over the momentum for realignment of the opposition camp, with the prospect of talks between the DPJ and what remains of Ishin no To for a possible merger also uncertain.
Jitters over Hashimoto’s next move won’t die down. His vow to “retire” from politics following the rejection of his Osaka reorganization plan in the May referendum did not stop him from taking a leading role in splitting Ishin no To and creating his new party ahead of the Osaka elections. Matsui said he would consult closely with Hashimoto as the new party’s “legal and policy adviser” after he completes his term as mayor on Dec. 18. Speculation lingers that Hashimoto will aim for a comeback in national politics by seeking a Diet seat.
While his Osaka Ishin group bitterly confronted the LDP at the local level, Hashimoto has maintained a “case-by-case” position toward the Abe administration and maintains close ties with the prime minister and his key aides. It’s no secret that Abe sees in Hashimoto and his group a potential ally in aiding his own agenda of amending the Constitution. Hashimoto proved himself a sizable influence in Sunday’s elections. If he intends to retain a role in politics, he should make clear to the voters his position and the course of the new party he created — either in Osaka or national politics.
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