National / Politics

Election victory in Nago seen as LDP win but new mayor may prove tough to crack

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Sunday’s victory in the Nago mayoral election by a candidate who appears to favor the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the city’s Henoko district is widely seen as a political victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a defeat for anti-base advocates in Okinawa, starting with Gov. Takeshi Onaga.

But with the Henoko project still facing considerable opposition within the prefecture, the new mayor, Taketoyo Toguchi, could prove tougher to deal with than the prime minister and his allies initially thought.

Toguchi, who was strongly backed by Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party, also won Komeito’s support and received an endorsement from Nippon Ishin no Kai. He ousted Mayor Susumu Inamine by less than 3,500 votes out of more than 36,000 cast. Turnout was 76.92 percent, a slight increase over the previous election in 2014.

Inamine, who was seeking a third term, ran mostly on his opposition to the Henoko project. He had the backing of Onaga and his “all Okinawa” coalition, an alliance of traditional anti-base activists and local business leaders. Inamine also had the backing of most major opposition parties.

Abe expressed his thanks to Nago voters for choosing Toguchi.

“The central government wants to take responsibility and support the new mayor’s campaign promises. On the base issue, while continuing to seek the understanding of the people of Nago, we want to proceed on the basis of the Supreme Court decision,” Abe told reporters in Tokyo on Monday morning.

That decision, handed down in December 2016, went in favor of the central government in a long-standing fight between Tokyo and Okinawa over land reclamation work related to the Henoko project.

It paved the way for the start of seawall construction in the area from April 2017, although Onaga filed another lawsuit to halt the project in July. During the mayoral race, Toguchi avoided discussion of the Henoko controversy, saying only that he would pay attention to the ongoing lawsuit. His campaign appearances emphasized local economic conditions, child care, and other social welfare issues, as he asked voters if their lives had improved under eight years of Inamine’s tenure.

LDP officials in Tokyo credited that strategy for Toguchi’s win. But he also had the support of Komeito, which had remained neutral in the 2014 election.

While Abe and pro-Henoko advocates are happy, assumptions that Toguchi will now easily agree to finish the base relocation project could prove erroneous. Past Nago mayoral candidates backed by the LDP and nominally pro-base often proved to be tougher once in office, especially on central government-funded projects related to local economic development in exchange for hosting the Henoko facility.

Toguchi indicated Monday he might not be as cooperative as some think.

“There have been heartless comments by certain important persons who are too estranged from the feelings of Nago residents. I need to keep a certain distance,” Toguchi said.

He was apparently referring to comments made in late January by Fumiaki Matsumoto, then the senior vice minister in the Cabinet Office. Matsumoto was forced to resign after heckling an opposition lawyer during a discussion on forced landings by U.S. helicopters, in which Matsumoto called out, “How many people have died in the incidents?”

Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, noted that with or without Toguchi’s victory, the central government was going to implement the Henoko relocation plan.

“Obviously, his victory will provide a more favorable political environment. But as exit polls show, more than 60 percent of voters still oppose the relocation, and Toguchi himself calls for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. Marines from Okinawa,” Kotani said.

“If the government takes the victory as absolute confidence (in the Henoko plan), that might invite a negative reaction from the Okinawan people,” he added.

Attention now turns to the fate of Onaga. The Nago election was seen as a proxy battle between the LDP and Onaga, who was swept to power in 2014 by running against the Henoko project. He was backed by a loose alliance of traditional anti-base activists, Okinawan businesses against the Henoko facility, and most of the major opposition parties.

While there is speculation in the Okinawan media that Onaga may not seek re-election in November, and the LDP is already sounding out potential candidates to run against him, Tobias Harris of the Washington D.C.-based Teneo Intelligence and an expert on Japanese politics, says the loss of one mayoral race doesn’t necessarily mean Onaga is doomed.

“Opposition, anti-base candidates still performed extremely well in the 2017 general election, even if the LDP reclaimed one of the prefecture’s single-member districts, suggesting that Onaga should still be able to mobilize anti-base voters. That said, the LDP clearly sees retaking the governorship as a priority for this year,” he said.

For now, the Nago result is good news for Abe and one that comes at an opportune time. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is due to arrive in Tokyo on Tuesday for a series of talks, where U.S.-Japan cooperation on North Korea is expected to be high on the agenda.

“I don’t think Washington will increase pressure on Tokyo when the U.S. military helicopter accidents are an increasing concern in Okinawa. The Trump administration might, however, welcome further Japanese financial contributions for the relocation of the marines from Okinawa to Guam,” Kotani said. “I’d be surprised if (the election result) leads to more pressure from the Pentagon or it figures much in this week’s Pence-Abe meeting, if only because Washington seems to have decided several years ago that overcoming Okinawan resistance is an internal Japanese matter,” Harris added. In a political victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a defeat for anti-U.S. base forces in Okinawa, incumbent Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine failed in his re-election bid Sunday night, losing to a candidate strongly backed by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito.

Inamine lost to Taketoyo Toguchi, a former Nago assemblyman, by less than 3,500 votes out of over 36,000 cast. Voter turnout was 76.92 percent, a slight increase over the previous 2014 election.

During the race, Toguchi emphasized local economics over a controversial new U.S. military facility.

Komeito, which had stayed neutral in the 2014 election, decided to back Toguchi this time. During the campaign, he avoided discussion over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which sits in Ginowan in the central part of the main island, to Nago’s Henoko district, where a new offshore facility is being built.

Toguchi instead appealed to voters more concerned about the local economy — and central government support of it — and worried things had declined under Inamine.

Inamine, who hoped for a third term, ran mostly on his opposition to the Henoko project. He had the backing of Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga and his “all Okinawa” coalition, an alliance of traditional anti-base activists and local business leaders who don’t want the Henoko facility. Inamine also had the backing of most major opposition parties.

In the end, though, worries over the local economy and jobs convinced a majority of voters to go with Toguchi.

The election was seen as a proxy battle between Abe and the LDP, which wants the Henoko facility completed as soon as possible, and Onaga, who was swept to power in 2014 by running against the relocation. Toguchi’s victory came after intense campaigning on his behalf by the LDP. Major party figures, including rising star Shinjiro Koizumi, widely touted as a future prime minister, visited the prefecture to campaign for him.

Despite Toguchi’s victory, however, Okinawa remains angry at the central government and the U.S. military over a series of mishaps last month involving Okinawa-based U.S. helicopters that raised safety concerns. Last week, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly unanimously called on the central government to force flights at Futenma over schools, hospitals, and residential areas to be halted.

The U.S. and Japan continue to insist the relocation of U.S. Marines at Futenma to a new offshore facility at Henoko, which is currently under construction, is the only option, despite long-standing local objections.

For Abe, the Nago result is good news at an opportune time. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is due to arrive in Tokyo Tuesday for a series of talks, where U.S.-Japan cooperation — which involves U.S. forces in Okinawa — on North Korea is expected to be high on the agenda.

In Okinawa, attention now turns to November, when Onaga is up for re-election in a race where Abe and the ruling coalition are likely to heavily support whoever ends up running against him.