Could the drastic alteration of a region’s administrative framework be a reform that leads to regional development? It can be said that such a plan failed to sufficiently present local residents with a clear view of its effects and future prospects.
In the second referendum asking Osaka City residents to vote for or against the Osaka metropolis plan, promoted by the regional political party Osaka Ishin no Kai, votes against the plan exceeded those for it once again. The plan — to dissolve and reorganize Osaka City, a government ordinance-designated city, into four special wards, and transfer its wide-area administration to the Osaka prefectural government — was scrapped.
As in the last referendum five years ago, there was heated debate that has split the city into two forces. Voter turnout stood at 62.35%, with a narrow margin of about 17,000 votes between those for and against the plan.
At a press conference, Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui, who is the representative of the regional party, said on the cause of the defeat: “It is a result of my lack of [persuasive] power. I couldn’t convince people sufficiently.” He expressed his intention to retire from politics after his mayoral term expires.
Osaka Ishin, which will lose its key policy and its leader, will no doubt be forced to take tough measures to manage the party. Unlike in the previous referendum, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito fought on opposite sides this time, with the LDP opposing the plan and Komeito supporting it. It is also necessary to pay close attention to the impact on national politics, including election cooperation.
Since 2011, Osaka Ishin has monopolized the posts of Osaka prefectural governor and Osaka mayor, and has made efforts to rectify administrative overlap between the prefectural and city governments. Therefore, some people have said, “Isn’t it still possible to improve administrative efficiency [without a large-scale system change]?”
Due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, the number of explanatory sessions for residents was limited, and there were few opportunities to discuss specific blueprints for Osaka, such as industrial promotion measures and strengthening cooperation with neighboring prefectures. As a result, it might have been difficult for the residents to understand the necessity of the Osaka metropolis plan.
Nevertheless, nearly half of the residents voted in favor. They seem to have called for a change in the current situation in which the decline in the economy and other fields continues in the Kansai region, including Osaka. Local industries in Osaka, including tourism, eating and drinking establishments, and small and midsize manufacturers, have been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis.
Even amid expectations of difficult fiscal management, preparations for the Osaka-Kansai exposition in 2025 will get into full swing.
The Osaka prefectural and municipal governments must deepen their cooperation and come up with effective measures.
In response to the result of the vote this time, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said: “It has generated a debate about the system related to the governance of major cities. It’s important to have various discussions.”
There is a view that it has not been clearly decided how ordinance-designated cities, which were institutionalized in 1956, are meant to share roles with their prefectures. According to a survey conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun, among governors of prefectures that have ordinance-designated cities in them, and mayors of ordinance-designated cities, 30% replied that they have an “administrative overlap” between the prefectural and city governments.
The vitalization of major cities, which serve as the driving force behind their regions, is an issue that can lead to a breakthrough in the overconcentration of population and government functions in Tokyo. Taking into account the debate on the Osaka metropolis plan this time, it is important to positively consider what form public administration and cities should take.
— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Nov. 3, 2020.