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Incumbent leading in Nago race

Phone polls put Inamine ahead of his pro-base rival, Suematsu

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

As voters in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, prepare to cast their ballots Sunday for a mayoral election that is being closely watched in Tokyo and Washington, polls show the incumbent, who strongly opposes relocating the Futenma military base to the city’s Henoko district, is leading his pro-base rival.

In response, top Liberal Democratic Party leaders have stepped up their support for the challenger even as comments by LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba that Tokyo would decide the location of the replacement base have created anger among even pro-base supporters in Okinawa.

In a telephone poll of 860 Nago voters conducted this week by the Okinawa Times, the Asahi Shimbun and Ryukyu Asahi Broadcasting, Mayor Susumu Inamine held a clear lead over Bunshin Suematsu, who is backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration.

The mayor is supported by all of the smaller opposition parties and can count on about 80 percent of unaffiliated voters, the poll found.

Suematsu, by contrast, has about 80 percent of the local LDP vote but isn’t winning over independents. He is also only drawing about half of the voters belonging to New Komeito, which is not officially backing either candidate.

The poll showed that around 20 percent of voters were still undecided. But 64 percent said they oppose relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko, and only 19 percent voiced support.

A survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun last week also found Inamine in the lead, with 72 percent saying the base should be relocated outside of Okinawa.

Perhaps anticipating a victory by Inamine, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima met with him Wednesday evening for the first time since he approved the central government’s application last month for a base-related land reclamation project at Henoko.

The meeting was frosty. While Nakaima told the mayor that Abe had guaranteed Okinawa’s development budget for the next eight years, Inamine replied the governor had made a mistake.

“You did not get the OK from Nago for the land reclamation project,” Inamine said.

Nakaima’s popularity has plunged since he gave the permission. Calls are growing in Okinawa for him to resign. The gubernatorial election is currently scheduled for November, following an election in September for the Nago assembly, which, by a slim majority, currently opposes moving Futenma to Henoko.

In the meantime, Tokyo is strongly backing Suematsu. Senior LDP leaders like Ishiba and rising stars like 32-year-old Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, are campaigning on his behalf.

But Ishiba was the subject of controversy earlier this week when he said the Henoko issue was the central government’s concern.

“This is an election about the development of Nago and the northern part of Okinawa Prefecture. The location of the base is something the central government will decide,” Ishiba told a news conference Sunday in Tottori Prefecture.

He was commenting on a statement by Inamine that the Nago mayor has the authority to stop construction of the base. Ishiba drew sharp criticism from not only traditional anti-base activists but also those in Henoko who have signaled their conditional support for the relocation.

For his part, Suematsu, the pro-base candidate, has been playing down the controversy and touting, in general terms, what he says will be the economic benefits of hosting the base.

Suematsu is promising that a new base would bring in both jobs and contracts for local construction and service companies, especially Nago firms seeking base maintenance contracts. Inamine is running on his record, which he says includes an increased municipal budget for construction spending related to nonbase public works projects, as well as free medical care for children up to junior high school.