BY ERIC JOHNSTON, STAFF WRITER
OSAKA – Although the election campaign is still to come, Yoshihide Suga, the top spokesman for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, is the heavy favorite to become the next president of the Liberal Democratic Party and, thus, prime minister. That’s good news for one opposition party: Nippon Ishin no Kai.
Centered in Osaka, Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) has long enjoyed a close relationship with Suga, the current chief Cabinet secretary, sharing many of the same political beliefs as the current administration, including the desire for constitutional revision.
Nippon Ishin executives — Osaka Mayor and Nippon Ishin head Ichiro Matsui, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura, and former Nippon Ishin leader and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto — have met regularly with Suga since Abe returned to power in December 2012.
“Suga is a welcome candidate,’’ Matsui told reporters in Osaka after it was reported that Suga planned to run for the presidency. “He helped shore up the Abe administration’s support for Osaka’s winning bid for the 2025 World Expo and for Osaka to host last year’s G20 Leaders’ Summit.”
For Nippon Ishin, a Suga administration would mean a continuation of the close relationship with and support from the highest level of the central government.
The close ties are likely to bode well for Osaka’s efforts to ensure central government financing in next year’s fiscal budget for the 2025 Expo at a time when the Diet will be expected to focus on buoying the world’s third-biggest economy damaged by the coronavirus pandemic.
Nippon Ishin leaders also expect Suga to support Osaka’s efforts to realize an integrated casino resort as soon as possible. That effort has currently been put on hold due to the coronavirus and the arrest of Lower House member Tsukasa Akimoto, who allegedly received bribes from a Chinese firm that wanted to operate a casino resort in Japan. Akimoto oversaw the initiative as a senior vice minister at the Cabinet Office.
However, Matsui’s immediate hope is that Suga will quietly support, or at least not loudly oppose, Nippon Ishin’s signature goal of merging Osaka city’s 24 wards into four large, semi-autonomous wards. A referendum on the issue is expected to take place on Nov. 1.
Any stance on the merger issue is problematic for Suga. LDP Osaka municipal assembly members have long opposed the merger and opinions are divided in the LDP Osaka prefectural chapter. Suga has not publicly supported the merger. Yet neither, to the frustration of Osaka’s LDP chapter, has he publicly opposed it.
Rumors are floating in Tokyo’s political center that the next prime minister may dissolve the Lower House for a snap election in late October. Osaka’s Matsui said that, if that happened, it would be a good idea to reschedule the referendum for the same date.
“A general election and referendum on the same day would hold down costs and lead to higher voter turnout,” Matsui said.