U.S. base proponent takes Iwakuni mayoral race

by Eric Johnston

IWAKUNI, Yamaguchi Pref. — Voters here Sunday put hopes for economic revitalization ahead of concerns about a U.S. military base by electing Yoshihiko Fukuda, a former Liberal Democratic Party member of the Lower House, as mayor.

Fukuda, 37, who ran with no party affiliation but had strong backing from the ruling coalition, narrowly defeated former Mayor Katsusuke Ihara, 57, in a tight contest that was closely watched in Tokyo and Washington.

At issue was whether voters accept transferring U.S. aircraft from the naval air station in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, to the U.S. Marines base in Iwakuni.

Reflecting deep interest in the issue, voter turnout was 76.26 percent, up 11.17 percent from the previous election.

Under a 2006 bilateral agreement, the U.S. base at Iwakuni will host an additional 57 carrier-based aircraft currently at Atsugi Naval Air Station, and about 12 KC-130 midair refueling aircraft currently based at Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture.

The relocation is supposed to be completed by 2014 but is contingent upon expanding the base at Iwakuni and building additional facilities.

The Iwakuni election was considered not only a political test for the ruling coalition and opposition parties but also a key indicator of whether base realignment as a whole will move forward.

While Ihara based his campaign on opposing the plan, Fukuda emphasized the need for fiscal reform and told voters only he can negotiate with Tokyo for subsidies that will come with hosting the additional U.S. troops and their families.

With Fukuda’s election, Tokyo and Washington are now hopeful that the relocation from Atsugi to Iwakuni can be accelerated. Most members of the Iwakuni Municipal Assembly support the move.

Both Ihara and Fukuda ran without party endorsement, but the LDP and New Komeito heavily supported Fukuda. Senior LDP officials, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose district is in Yamaguchi, lobbied voters and businesses behind the scenes on Fukuda’s behalf.

Ihara was backed by the opposition parties.

Fukuda, one of “Koizumi’s children” — politicians elected to the Upper House in September 2005 after Junichiro Koizumi called a snap election — resigned his Diet seat late last year.

Younger voters were attracted to Fukuda. Several of those who voted for him Sunday said his appeal was that he was thinking about Iwakuni’s future.

“I think that Fukuda understands that we need jobs and economic revitalization. I’m not wild about the base. But I think Fukuda can work with Tokyo to ensure its presence helps keep younger people in Iwakuni,” said Masami Yamamoto, 31, a local housewife.

It was third time in two years that the question of whether to accept the aircraft transfer plan was put to local voters.