Opponents of a new U.S. Marine Corps base in Okinawa delivered a fresh rebuke to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as former Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga won the prefecture’s gubernatorial contest Sunday night in an election closely followed by Tokyo and Washington.
Onaga cruised to victory against incumbent Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima on a platform opposing the construction of a replacement facility in Nago’s Henoko district for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, at present located in the crowded central city of Ginowan.
Speaking to backers and reporters just minutes after polls closed at 8 p.m. and he was declared the victor, Onaga said a new chapter in Okinawa’s history had begun, especially in regards to the future of the Henoko base, which he vowed to stop, announcing he would reverse Nakaima’s decision to approve a contentious landfill permit for the relocation.
“I’ll work to cancel and revoke (Nakaima’s permission for the landfill permit). The new military base will not be built,” Onaga, 64, declared.
Backed by a broad coalition of Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito prefectural officials, business leaders, and traditional anti-base activists angered at Nakaima, 75, for agreeing last December to approve the Henoko landfill project, Onaga’s victory marks another twist in the nearly two-decade effort to close Futenma and move it elsewhere.
His triumph came despite heavy support for Nakaima by Abe, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and many other central LDP figures, who visited Okinawa on the governor’s behalf. But efforts by Nakaima to convince voters to hand him a third term by insisting he had gotten Abe to promise to shut down Futenma within five years fell flat, as voters doubted the likelihood of such a move.
With Onaga now set to take up the governor’s seat, discontent within the LDP over Abe’s leadership is likely to grow, even if, as expected, a snap election is held next month and the ruling party wins comfortably. The LDP is already looking ahead to next April’s nationwide local elections, and the defeat in Okinawa raises concerns about how its candidates in the various prefectural and municipal races will fare.
Onaga’s victory was not unexpected, as recent media polls in Okinawa had shown him leading Nakaima, who was reportedly in ill health.
The race was widely seen as a final referendum on the Futenma base relocation, but with Abe out of the country over the past week and the looming probability of a snap Lower House poll, the campaign received slightly less attention from Tokyo than in the 2006 and 2010 gubernatorial elections, both of which Nakaima won.
As governor, Onaga will immediately re-examine the landfill application Nakaima approved last year for Henoko and determine if the environmental assessment that accompanied it was conducted properly.
Both pro- and anti-base voters in Okinawa expect an Onaga victory will mean more administrative delays on the part of the prefectural government to complete the Futenma replacement facility, which was originally proposed in the late 1990s but has been stalled due to fierce local opposition.
Onaga also promised to deliver a strong message to Tokyo and Washington that the Henoko plan was unacceptable and that those who thought Okinawa could be bribed by being offered central government funds for development projects were wrong.
His campaign office said he would visit Washington next year and convey this message to members of the U.S. Congress and their staff who also doubt the viability of the base relocation plan.
“We’ll break through the wall that the Japanese and American government have put up” with regards to listening to Okinawan voices, Onaga said earlier Sunday, before the result was known. “The Futenma base is the largest obstacle to developing the prefecture’s economy, and it’s critical to debunk the mistaken message that central government assistance for Okinawa is linked to a new base.”