• Kyodo

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Voting started Sunday in Okinawa to pick a governor in an election that could determine the fate of the contentious relocation of a key U.S. military base.

The gubernatorial election is the first opportunity for the people of Okinawa, home to the bulk of U.S. military installations in Japan, to deliver a verdict on Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima’s decision last December to approve the start of landfill work in preparation for building a replacement facility in Nago for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Ginowan.

Nakaima, 75, is seeking his third term in office against anti-relocation candidates: former Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga, 64; and former Upper House lawmaker Shokichi Kina, 66. Mikio Simoji, a 53-year-old former state minister in charge of postal privatization, has argued that the relocation issue should be put to a referendum.

For Nakaima, who is endorsed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, this was a tougher race than before, as he failed to win the backing of Komeito, LDP’s junior coalition partner, after he gave the go-ahead to the Futenma relocation.

His main conservative rival, Onaga, on the other hand, has received support from the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party. The former mayor of the prefectural capital is widely expected to have cut into Nakaima’s conservative support base.

The transfer of the Futenma base has long been both a political and emotional issue in Okinawa, where anti-military sentiment runs deep and many residents call for a smaller U.S. military footprint. The Abe administration has said the current relocation plan is “the only viable solution” for removing the dangers of Futenma, located in a densely populated area, and maintaining U.S. deterrence.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the top government spokesman, has set a February 2019 deadline for ending operations at Futenma.

The gubernatorial election is also expected to serve as a referendum on the Abe administration’s policy on Okinawa, as it has promised financial support for the flagging local economy.

Tokyo and Washington agreed in 1996 to relocate the Futenma base after the rape of a schoolgirl by U.S. servicemen the year before led to a spike in anti-U.S. military sentiment. But the plan has been hampered by local opposition and political wrangling.

The government led by the Democratic Party of Japan backpedaled on its promise to the people of Okinawa to move Futenma out of the prefecture.

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