OSAKA – Atsushi Sakima, a former member of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, was elected mayor of Ginowan by 900 votes in a controversial race closely watched outside Okinawa for its impact on the long-stalled relocation of the Futenma air base.
Despite initial hopes in Tokyo that Sakima’s victory would open a small window of opportunity for shifting the base to Henoko farther north on Okinawa Island, Sakima, who once supported the move, said he will stick to his campaign vow of trying to get Futenma moved out of the prefecture.
“Realistically, the Henoko relocation plan is impossible,” Sakima said Monday morning, a day after his narrow victory over an even more ardent base foe.
Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who strongly supported Sakima and likewise opposes keeping the base in Okinawa, said speculation the new mayor could be persuaded to support a 2006 agreement to relocate Futenma to Henoko is a misreading of the election result.
“Sakima won because of his position on moving the base outside Okinawa,” Nakaima said.
Sakima’s victory over former Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha, 60, means a conservative candidate has won control of City Hall for the first time in 27 years. He won with 22,612 votes to Iha’s 21,712. Voter turnout was 63.9 percent, about 3 percentage points lower than the 2010 election, which was held after Iha resigned and ran against Nakaima for governor.
Besides Nakaima, Sakima was backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito as well as major Okinawa business organizations.
Iha was supported by the Social Democratic Party and the Japan Communist Party, as well as by the Ginowan municipal labor union. He was also the clear choice of the staunchest base opponents, including politicians like Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, who expressed surprise and disappointment at Sakima’s victory.
As the campaign entered its final days, there was speculation whether alleged attempts by Ro Manabe, head of the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa bureau, to get Ginowan-based Defense Ministry officials and their family members to vote for Sakima would tip the scales in his favor.
“I don’t know if they affected the election or not,” Sakima said Monday in response to a question about Manabe’s actions.
Ginowan voters were especially concerned by last week’s announcement by Japan and the U.S. that the movement of Okinawa-based marines to Guam was no longer linked to progress on constructing the Futenma replacement facility in Henoko. There were fears this meant Tokyo and Washington would simply allow Futenma to keep operating indefinitely in Ginowan. Sakima won voters over by promising to prevent that.
But in addition to the Futenma issue, there were other concerns, which Iha, in his concession speech, admitted he failed to effectively articulate.
Media exit polls showed Sakima won large numbers of younger and unaffiliated voters who were concerned with child care support and reviving the local economy. In addition, as of last year, there were 3,238 owners of the roughly 480 hectares of land Futenma sits on, and they received over ¥6.7 billion in rent. Sakima was seen by many as a more effective negotiator with the prefecture and the central government on their behalf than Iha.