Nov. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Osaka voters choose this weekend between a populist ex-governor who has pledged to enlarge Japan’s second-biggest economic region through municipal mergers and an incumbent backed by the political establishment.
Toru Hashimoto, a 42-year-old lawyer whose popularity as a TV commentator helped him win as prefectural governor in 2008, last month quit his post to run against Kunio Hiramatsu, mayor of the city of 2.7 million since 2007. Among Hashimoto’s pledges is to eliminate his own job if elected.
“I am running in this election to abolish the mayor’s post,” said Hashimoto, who wants to merge the city with the surrounding municipalities to consolidate spending on projects such as railroads and airports. While this would be modeled after Tokyo, ultimately creating a more powerful governor’s post, Hashimoto said his real aim is global competitiveness.
The Osaka-centered Kansai region, which has an economy on par with Switzerland and spawned companies like Panasonic Corp. and Nintendo Co., faces increased competition from other parts of Asia as the yen’s climb hurts exporters. The region’s economy shrank 5.7 percent in the 10 years ended March 2009 to 38 trillion yen ($492 billion), while Tokyo’s grew 0.1 percent. The number of factories in Higashi-Osaka, the nation’s most industrialized township, has dropped 40 percent from its peak to 6,016, about the same level as the early 1970s.
“A bigger, integrated government lets us compete on a more equal footing with cities like Shanghai, Seoul or New York,” Hashimoto told an audience this week at a campaign stop.
Known for his outspoken views on subjects such as gambling and nuclear power, the father of seven has struck a chord with voters frustrated with national politicians as Japan endured two decades of economic shrinkage and allowed public debt to reach more than double gross domestic product.
“Hashimoto is a very strong, decisive leader,” said Motoji Kawahito, a 39 year-old tax accountant and native Osakan. “That’s a kind we rarely see in Japan these days.”
Kawahito said Osaka risks withering and dying if it doesn’t change drastically. He said Hashimoto has brought “a breath of fresh air” to an election that local media are calling a modern-day “Siege of Osaka Castle,” referring to a series of 17th-century battles at the city’s historic fortress that annihilated the Toyotomi clan and led to Japan’s unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Hashimoto’s opponent, incumbent mayor Hiramatsu, was briefly an ally. The two were elected a few months apart and while they were familiar faces on the local scene thanks to their television exposure -- Hashimoto as a panelist on current affairs programs and Hiramatsu as a news anchorman -- they were both largely welcome additions to the local political scene.
The relationship eroded when Hashimoto laid the groundwork for his One Osaka party, which now controls the prefectural assembly and is the largest bloc at the city level.
While neither candidate is directly linked to the Democratic Party of Japan or the Liberal Democrats, the nation’s two biggest parties, their local chapters have lined up behind Hiramatsu, who is 21 years older than Hashimoto. The Japan Communist Party decided not to run a candidate and has endorsed Hiramatsu, according to a Mainichi newspaper report.
In speeches, Hiramatsu presents himself as focused on repairing Osaka’s financial standing as the city struggles amid the global economic recession.
“I have steadily achieved what I promised to voters in my four-year term,” Hiramatsu said this week. “Don’t be deceived by a baseless fairy tale that says everything will be perfect if we just change the political system.”
He told the audience he has cut the city’s debt by about 400 billion yen and cleaned up Osaka’s image by getting rid of abandoned bicycles that clutter many streets of the mainly industrial metropolis.
Mizue Nakata, a 71-year-old widow who listened to the speech, said Osaka has become a cleaner, more attractive city since Hiramatsu became mayor and will vote for him.
“Hashimoto on the other hand seems aggressive and dictatorial,” said Nakata, who has witnessed five decades of Osaka’s history. “I’m afraid he wouldn’t really care about the weak like us. We don’t want to be left behind.”
To Hashimoto, whose surprise resignation forced double elections that will also see a One Osaka ally vie for his old job as governor of Osaka prefecture, Sunday’s vote is a “Hamlet moment” for Japan’s No. 2 region.
“To change or not to change -- we must choose between the two,” he told supporters at the rally. “I pledge to increase income and jobs for Osakans by reforming the political system.”
Hashimoto has said his merger plan would create economies of scale that can reduce government spending and the number of public employees. Among Japan’s cities, only Tokyo has a system under which wards have an elected mayor. While it’s a structure Hashimoto wants to adopt, it’s not likely to slow the decline of the regional economy, a researcher said.
“Osaka has been stagnating for a long period of time and it is very difficult to find a specific cause behind that,” Akihiro Shima, an analyst at the Kansai Institute for Social and Economic Research, said in an interview.
While Shima agrees local governments should have a certain amount of size to compete against foreign cities, he said a mere structural reshuffle won’t add much value.
“Tokyo is thriving not because its local government is great,” he said. “It’s successful because it’s the seat of the central government and people are still flocking to it.”
--With assistance from Aki Ito in Tokyo. Editors: Drew Gibson, Brian Fowler.
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