An election that will likely affect Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s political fortunes and potentially have an impact on military relations with the United States kicked off Thursday as four candidates began vying for the post of governor of Okinawa.
The race is widely seen as a referendum on the relocation plan for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is to be moved further north to a facility now being built on the coast of Henoko in Okinawa, in exchange for central government subsidies over the coming years.
Four candidates are running, including incumbent Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, 75, former Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga, 64, former Upper House member Shokichi Kina, 66, and former Lower House member Mikio Shimoji, 53.
The front-runners are Nakaima, who is seeking a third term, and Onaga, who has the support of many local businesses and LDP supporters who are angry at the Abe government for pushing the Henoko relocation plan and upset with Nakaima for agreeing to it last December.
Opposition to the Henoko move is largely on the grounds that it would keep U.S. troops within the prefecture, rather than expel them altogether.
Nakaima enjoys the support of the Abe government and Defense Ministry. He favors relocation to Henoko.
Onaga earlier supported the move, but switched his position earlier this year. Shimoji, who also once favored the move, has promised voters that if elected, he will hold a prefecture-wide referendum to let voters decide whether they want the base to remain in the area.
Kina, who was well-known in Okinawa and abroad as an Okinawan musician before entering politics, has said there are problems with the environmental assessment of the area around Henoko, where the new base will be built, and has said he will seek to rescind Nakaima’s decision.
For Abe, the election comes at a particularly difficult time. With his popularity sagging and senior LDP officials like secretary-general Sadakazu Tanigaki not ruling out the possibility of the Lower House being dissolved before the end of the year, a loss by Nakaima would weaken Abe further, says Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University. Nakaima had been leading Onaga by over 10 points in some internal LDP polls back in August.
“This was a crucial election to begin with for Abe. But because of the timing of various financial scandals among his Cabinet members, it’s even more important now. If Nakaima loses it could be the beginning of the end for Abe, and there will be questions about whether Abe is too weak to lead the party into next spring’s local elections,” Nakano said.
For Nakaima, the election is about securing his legacy. This means sticking around for another four years, despite his advanced age, to ensure that Tokyo meets its promise of paying at least ¥300 billion annually until 2021 for local infrastructure projects, including a second runway at Naha airport and a possible casino. The government pledged the funds last year.
In addition, Nakaima says he wants to ensure that the Futenma base, in the city of Ginowan, closes by 2019. He has said the government pledged that late last year.
“I received a definite promise from Abe that operations at Futenma would close within five years,” Nakaima told voters during a debate with the other candidates Wednesday.
But despite the fact that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan would try to halt Futenma’s operations by February 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense has said Futenma will not shut until the Henoko replacement facility is built.
In April 2013, it was agreed Futenma would return to Japanese use sometime after 2022, leaving much doubt in Okinawa, even among voters that support the troops’ presence, as to whether the central government can meet its promise.