OSAKA – Backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling coalition, Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima won re-election Sunday night, defeating his opponent in what was seen as a proxy battle between Abe and supporters of a controversial base relocation plan and opponents of the plan, including Okinawa’s governor.
Sakima’s opponent was Keiichiro Shimura, a 63-year-old former prefectural official who had the support of Gov. Takeshi Onaga and the opposition parties.
At issue was the fate of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which occupies roughly 25 percent of Ginowan. Both candidates agreed the base had to be closed.
During his campaign, Sakima avoided taking a direct position on moving it further north to the coastal Henoko district of Nago as mandated by a bilateral agreement with the U.S.
He called only for the early return of the land the base occupies.
Shimura, on the other hand, wanted Futenma closed and relocated, but not to Henoko. That is also the position of Onaga and a broad coalition of Okinawa politicians and citizens.
Speaking to reporters after Sakima’s victory was declared, Onaga said that there would be no change in his opposition to the Henoko relocation.
Defense Minister Gen Nakatani welcomed Sakima’s victory.
“Mayor Sakima has made efforts to avoid having Futenma being stuck in Ginowan,” Nakatani said.
He added that the government will continue to move forward with the planned Henoko replacement facility in order to have all of the land Futenma occupies returned and in order to reduce Okinawa’s base burden.
With Sakima’s victory, Abe and the LDP have gained, if not a strong ally, then at least a Ginowan mayor not backed by Onaga. This, they hope, will pressure the governor and the broad coalition of anti-Henoko politicians and citizens who support him to rethink their confrontation with Tokyo over the issue.
In addition, Abe and the LDP hope Sakima’s victory will have a ripple effect in June, when prefectural assembly elections are held. The majority of assembly members oppose the Henoko plan.
Sakima’s win was likely due to numerous factors.
Exit polls show him winning a substantial number of nonaffiliated voters. In addition, Abe, the LDP and Komeito refrained from heavy-handed support of him during the campaign.
In January 2014, just before the Nago mayoral election, LDP heavyweight and regional revitalization minister Shigeru Ishiba visited the city on behalf of the LDP-backed candidate and promised ¥50 billion in public works funding if voters chose the party’s preferred candidate.
Nago voters instead re-elected anti-base Mayor Susumu Inamine, and even pro-Henoko voters in Nago heavily criticized Ishiba’s effort.
Last month, it appeared history might repeat itself when Sakima met with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to seek Tokyo’s support for a plan to build a Disney Resort facility after Futenma is moved. Suga endorsed the idea, but it is not clear if Disney did. However, this time, senior LDP figures stayed out of Ginowan during the campaign.
Shimura and his supporters dismissed Sakima’s plan and Suga’s reaction as last-minute pandering by Tokyo to get votes for Sakima and reminiscent of Ishiba’s failed tactic in Nago. But the message was not enough to convince a majority of Ginowan voters to back Shimura.