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NAHA — The official campaign for the Nov. 15 Okinawa gubernatorial election kicked off Thursday, beginning a contest that could determine the future of U.S. military bases on the island prefecture and its anemic economy.The race is being portrayed by many as a contest between incumbent Gov. Masahide Ota, 73, who seeks a third four-year term, and the Liberal Democratic Party-backed Keiichi Inamine, 65. The third candidate is Mitsuo Matayoshi, 54, the chief of a political group.Relations between the central government and Okinawa Prefecture have been marred recently by anti-U.S. sentiment among local residents against the military bases here, with Ota refusing to renew land leases for the bases or support construction of a new sea-based heliport that was part of an agreement to return base land to Okinawa.The Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party and two other parties are supporting Ota, while Komei and Shinto Heiwa (New Peace Party), which supported Ota in the previous election, are staying on the sidelines.Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and other Tokyo leaders expressed hope that Inamine would be the victor.The hottest issue in the race is the 1996 Japan-U.S. agreement for reshuffling U.S. military bases in Okinawa. The prefecture counts as only 0.6 percent of Japan’s total land mass but is the origin of 75 percent of the land that the U.S. forces use.Part of the 1996 accord says that the land that the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station sits on be returned within five to seven years on condition that its heliport operations are relocated to another location in Okinawa. The government came up with plan to build a sea-based heliport off Nago, which is 50 km northeast of Naha, but both Ota and Inamine oppose it.

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