The upcoming mayoral election in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, is posing a problem for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party because two conservative candidates who favor its policies in the prefecture want to run, which could split the vote.
If both decide to run against incumbent Susumu Inamine in the January election, both will likely fail, stalling yet again the central government’s effort to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma with a planned new air base in Nago farther north on Okinawa Island.
Inamine, 68, was elected in 2010 by demanding that the Futenma base be closed and no replacement be built in the prefecture. But the two candidates — former Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, 67, and former Vice Mayor Bunshin Suematsu, 65, are believed to back the government’s Nago base plan.
A three-way race is thus likely to benefit Inamine by letting Shimabukuro, an independent, and Suematsu, an LDP member of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, split the conservative camp’s backing for the government’s plan.
In Nago’s elections, whether to accept the Futenma replacement base plan has always been the main issue.
“If both run, they will definitely lose,” said a senior government official close to Abe. “And it’s quite difficult to get either one to quit.”
Abe is pushing to build the base in Nago to strengthen the Japan-U.S. military alliance, the centerpiece of his diplomatic strategy.
The Nago mayor’s consent is not legally required to carry out the plan. But the election in January will be symbolically important and carry weight with Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who has the power to prevent the central government from conducting the landfill operations off Nago needed to build the replacement airstrip.
The political turbulence began Wednesday, when the independent Shimabukuro told reporters he would run to promote the plan to build the base in Nago. Shimabukuro, who lost the 2010 election to Inamine, said he wanted to run again because Suematsu, who already said he would enter the race, does not clearly support the new base plan, which would boost Nago’s economy.
Suematsu is believed to back the government’s plan but hasn’t clearly stated that in public, apparently to avoid a voter backlash. Shimabukuro, on the other hand, has been avidly promoting it.
According to media reports, Shimabukuro has repeatedly said he would support Suematsu if he clearly states he will back the Nago base plan. But he hasn’t, prompting Shimabukuro’s threat to enter the race.
The LDP will continue efforts to persuade either of the two not to run. But if their efforts fail, the chance of Inamine’s re-election will greatly increase.
Anti-military sentiment is strong in Nago, whose residents are worried about accidents and noise problems being caused by U.S. aircraft.
But many others, including Shimabukuro, argue that bringing the air base to Nago will bring great benefits to the economy.
The Futenma replacement plan was first agreed on in 1996, but Tokyo and Washington have been stymied by resistance to the base, which sits in the middle of densely populated Ginowan.