November 27, 2011 5:34 pm

Populist outsider wins Osaka mayor election

Populist reformers triumphed in mayoral and gubernatorial elections in Japan’s western port city of Osaka, a result that reflects deep dissatisfaction with national politics and will fuel a drive for administrative reform in the industrial powerhouse.

Toru Hashimoto, a lawyer and former TV personality, won as Osaka’s mayor even though his incumbent opponent had been backed by local arms of both Japan’s ruling Democratic party and the Liberal Democratic party, the biggest opposition group.

The blunt-spoken Mr Hashimoto had stepped down as the governor of Osaka prefecture, which has an economy bigger than Switzerland’s and is home to multinational manufacturers such as Panasonic, in order to force a double mayoral and gubernatorial election.

Ichiro Matsui, a member of Mr Hashimoto’s locally based political party, won as Osaka governor in Sunday’s voting, Japanese media said. Jiji news agency said the “total victory” for the reformists marked a “major blow to the established parties”.

The two now plan to push for sweeping reform of the largely overlapping administrations of Osaka City and Osaka Prefecture. Mr Hashimoto has said unifying the city and prefectural governments will cut costs, remove deadweight bureaucracy and promote more coherent industrial and infrastructure policy.

Unification would give Osaka an administration similar to that of Tokyo, which supporters hope will help revitalise a region that remains an international economic powerhouse but has lagged behind the capital in recent decades.

Speaking last week, Hideki Konishi of Osaka’s Kansai University said victory could add impetus to other efforts to give Japan’s regions more independent authority.

“As an example of local political forces triumphing over national party politics, it could become part of a broader change in Japanese politics,” Prof Konishi said.

The ruling DPJ has long promised to promote “local sovereignty” but has made no obvious progress on the issue since winning power in 2009. It remains unclear how the government and opposition will now respond to Osaka’s reform call, which would require national legislation, but failure to act could deepen voter disillusionment with the national parties.

Mr Hashimoto’s call for administrative reform was the central issue of what had been the first double election for Osaka mayor and governor in 40 years. Kyodo news agency said turnout for the mayoral election was 61 per cent, up 17 percentage points from the last vote in 2007.

Opponents had criticised Mr Hashimoto’s direct style as a sign of dangerous local “dictatorship”, while unions had been dismayed by his call for the city office and prefectural administration to be “destroyed”.

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