OSAKA – In a key local election with implications for the relocation of a contentious U.S. military base, voters in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, went to the polls Sunday to cast their ballots for a new mayor.
At issue is the fate of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which occupies roughly 25 percent of the city. Voters were to choose between Mayor Atsushi Sakima, 51, backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner Komeito, or challenger Keiichiro Shimura, a 63-year-old former prefectural official supported by popular Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga and the opposition parties.
While both candidates want the base closed, Sakima has publicly avoided taking a position on moving it to the Henoko district in Nago further north, as mandated by a bilateral agreement. He has called only for the early return of land the base occupies.
Shimura wants the base closed and relocated, but not to Henoko. This is the same position backed by Onaga and a broad coalition of Okinawa politicians and citizens who oppose the Henoko project.
Construction of the Futenma replacement facility is proceeding despite clashes between police and protesters, and the looming possibility of a long legal battle between Okinawa Prefecture, which also opposes the project, and the central government.
Okinawa media polls showed the race was tight heading into Sunday, and that voter interest was high. The final result could be quite close. Sakima won the 2012 election by just 900 votes out of nearly 45,000 cast.
At that time, he supported moving the base out of Okinawa. But in 2013, as pressure from the Abe government to accept the Henoko plan climbed, Sakima announced a shift, saying there was no reason to disregard various possibilities for relocation. He has since emphasized efforts to achieve the early return of base land in his campaign.
That same year, former Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima agreed to approve a landfill project at Henoko, giving Tokyo the green light to begin construction. Angry Okinawan voters, however, booted him from office in November 2014 in favor of Onaga, who promised to halt construction.
A Sakima win would therefore be seen as a victory for Abe, while a Shimura win would likely strengthen Onaga’s hand.
Concerned by Shimura, Sakima met with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga last month to seek Tokyo’s support for a plan to build a Disney Resort facility after Futenma is moved. Suga endorsed the idea, but it’s not clear Disney did.
Shimura and his supporters dismissed the plan as last-minute pandering by Tokyo to get votes for Sakima. They have reminded voters that LDP heavyweight and regional revitalization minister Shigeru Ishiba made a similar move in Nago’s January 2014 mayoral election. Ishiba visited the city just before that poll, promising ¥50 billion in public works funding if voters chose the party’s preferred candidate, a Henoko plan supporter. Nago voters instead re-elected anti-base Mayor Susumu Inamine.