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Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011

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Head to head: Osaka Mayor Kunio Hiramatsu (left) and Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto exchange views at a forum held Aug. 29 in the nation's second-largest city. KYODO

Hashimoto, Osaka face watershed poll

Unprecedented double vote for governor, mayor tough to predict

Staff writer

OSAKA — Osaka will hold an unprecedented mayoral and gubernatorial double election Nov. 27 that will likely determine the future of the country's second-biggest city and the political career of Gov. Toru Hashimoto.

Both campaigns are expected to be emotionally charged and draw large numbers of voters, who will decide if they want leaders in favor of merging Osaka Prefecture and the city of Osaka, or keeping things the way they are.

The mayoral campaign will be particularly intense. On one side is Hashimoto, the populist governor and leader of the political group One Osaka (Osaka Ishin-no Kai). Hashimoto shocked prefectural residents this summer when he indicated he would resign and throw his own hat into the ring if his group failed to find a suitable candidate to run for mayor.

Hashimoto was set to submit his resignation past midnight Friday and is expected to declare this weekend he will run for mayor.

On the other side is Osaka Mayor Kunio Hiramatsu, who has officially announced he is seeking re-election. Hiramatsu and Hashimoto were once on good terms, but have become bitter rivals of late, publicly sniping at each other over the future direction of Osaka.

At the heart of the campaigns are two competing visions for Osaka's future. Under Hashimoto's plan, the city, which has a population of about 2.67 million and is divided into 24 wards, would be split into eight or nine districts, each with around 300,000 residents. In addition, each district would elect its own leader and be responsible for enacting policies for the district's residents.

Hashimoto said his plan aims to involve Osaka residents more directly in the political process and to streamline the bureaucracy.

Last month, Hiramatsu appeared to be in agreement with Hashimoto as he floated a similar plan that would allow the city to take over some functions currently carried out by the prefectural government.

But municipal assembly members from the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, whose support Hiramatsu is courting, strongly opposed the plan and he was forced to abandon it.

As a result, Hiramatsu is now pushing virtually the same idea the LDP's prefectural chapter promoted in local-level elections held earlier this year.

The mayor says that instead of combining the city and the prefecture to reduce the number of bureaucrats and elected officials, a new system should be established whereby the heads and elected representatives of Osaka Prefecture and the cities of Osaka and Sakai cooperate and come up with a strategy to reduce bureaucratic overlap and promote local economic growth.

"I realized that the idea of one special local government entity for Osaka was not possible. If there are other good ideas, I will listen to them," Hiramatsu told local media late last week.

Hashimoto's seeming willingness to give up the governorship for the far less powerful position of Osaka mayor is a high-risk, high-reward gamble. His group holds a majority in the prefectural assembly but not in the municipal assembly, where it requires the cooperation of either New Komeito or the LDP to pass legislation.

Of the Osaka Municipal Assembly's 86 seats, One Osaka holds only 33, while New Komeito has 19 and the LDP 17. In the Osaka Prefectural Assembly, One Osaka holds 57 of the 109 seats, while New Komeito has 21 and the LDP 13.

Local media and political analysts say the governor's original plan was for a close friend to run for mayor, and after finishing his term as governor, which officially expires in February, turn over the reins to another trusted associate. Such a scenario would free his hands and allow him to lay the groundwork for a run at the next Lower House election, media and analysts say.

"While Hashimoto is popular and could probably win the mayoral election, the support rate for One Osaka has been slipping," said Yuji Yoshitomi, a local journalist who has written several books on Osaka and Hashimoto.

"Hashimoto's tendency to speak first without thinking through the implications is blowing back on him because, although he indicated he will run for mayor, he really doesn't want to. He is probably still hoping somebody else will step forward.

"His true goal is to run in the next national election and, ultimately, become prime minister," Yoshitomi said.

But with his friends refusing to enter the race, One Osaka members in recent weeks have intensified their pressure on Hashimoto to run in the mayoral campaign.

In addition, One Osaka's choice for a gubernatorial candidate has turned out to be Ichiro Matsui, a three-term prefectural assembly member who quit the LDP in spring 2010 to join One Osaka.

Matsui, 47, is a trusted ally of Hashimoto but not the governor's first choice. Others, including Shigeaki Koga, a television commentator and former bureaucrat at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, spurned Hashimoto's overtures about running for governor, forcing One Osaka to tap the virtually unknown Matsui.

As things currently stand, Hashimoto and Osaka face a number of possible outcomes.

In one scenario, Hashimoto might become mayor and his ally, Matsui, could win the governorship, allowing Hashimoto and One Osaka to exert strong pressure on the municipal assembly to do their bidding.

Although Hashimoto seems convinced he can win that battle, the mayoralty is less powerful than the governorship and he would also face a municipal bureaucracy strongly opposed to his ideas.

The second outcome involves Hashimoto winning the mayoral campaign but Matsui losing the race for governor. This would result in the leaders of both the prefectural and municipal governments lacking the support of their respective assemblies.

The third potential scenario is that Hashimoto does not run for mayor and fails to find a strong One Osaka candidate, resulting in Hiramatsu being re-elected. At that point, One Osaka would be in trouble, even if Matsui were to win the governor's race.

Of course, if Hashimoto does run but ends up losing, and if Matsui also fails to become governor, it would likely be the end of both One Osaka and Hashimoto's political career.

Sensing Hashimoto might be vulnerable, the LDP's prefectural chapter, which has never forgiven the dozens of members like Matsui who defected to One Osaka, recently tried to get LDP Upper House member Kazuya Maruyama, also a former television celebrity, to run in the gubernatorial election.

"There's not a lot of time left, so we decided to choose somebody with high name recognition. He is popular and not strongly associated with the party, so he might appeal to other parties as well," Shuzen Tanigawa, who heads the LDP's Osaka chapter and is a fellow Upper House lawmaker, told reporters Oct. 12. As of Friday, though, Maruyama had yet to officially commit.

"Now is no longer the time to get some bureaucrat from Kasumigaseki (the Tokyo bureaucratic hub) or put up some famous person as a candidate," a clearly concerned Hashimoto said the following day, forgetting his own fame as a TV commentator was why he was approached to run for governor by local businesses and LDP leaders in 2008.

However, Maruyama turned down the offer, leaving the LDP without a candidate as of Friday.

In fact, Hashimoto's career as a TV celebrity before becoming governor, and his friendship with one scandal-hit entertainer in particular, may be the reason voters are increasingly viewing him with suspicion and friends are turning down his requests to run.

Shinsuke Shimada was one of the most well-known faces on TV until he bowed out in August after it was revealed he was closely linked to Hirofumi Hashimoto, a senior member of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the top underworld syndicate.

"Shimada hasn't been arrested yet. But Hashimoto and Shimada are close friends and often spent time together, even after Hashimoto became governor. Shimada has bragged he made Hashimoto governor, and he consulted with Hashimoto on various business projects.

"So if Osaka police arrest Shimada, they will likely want to question Hashimoto about his links to Shimada and his business associates," Yoshitomi said.

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