The outcome of a referendum in Okinawa showing that a vast majority of residents oppose the bilateral Futenma air base relocation plan may deal a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government at elections across the country this year.
More than 70 percent of voters in the prefecture voted no Sunday to the plan to proceed with landfill work to build the replacement facility for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma off the Henoko district in Nago. The move would shift all base-related military activities being undertaken in Ginowan, a crowded residential area, to Nago instead.
Naoto Nonaka, a professor of comparative politics at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, said the referendum comes at a time when Abe’s administration is in “a serious situation.” Nonaka believes Abe’s government has reached a dead end because of unsuccessful internal and diplomatic policy ventures.
Abe, who will become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in November, is struggling to define his political legacy, including progress on the nation’s first-ever amendment to the pacifist Constitution and his Abenomics policy package for boosting the economy.
On diplomacy, he has been focusing his political resources on negotiations to settle the territorial dispute with Russia and sign a postwar peace treaty. But the prospects for success remain murky as President Vladimir Putin refuses to budge.
Nonaka pointed out that Abe may be focused primarily on the survival of his administration.
On Monday, after Okinawa’s referendum, which was legally nonbinding, Abe said he “sincerely” accepts the anti-U.S. base sentiment shown by the vote and vowed to continue “all-out efforts to alleviate the base-hosting burden” on the people of Okinawa.
But Tokyo will proceed with the contentious relocation plan anyway, with Abe saying it “cannot be postponed any further.”
The government has underlined the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance, as compared to the will of Okinawa, and argued the relocation plan is “the only solution” to remove the dangers posed by the Futenma base without undermining the deterrence provided by the bilateral framework.
“The local people worked hard in the referendum to urge (the central government) to pause and give thought to the issue again,” Nonaka said, adding that they are demanding a more sufficient explanation.
If the Abe administration continues to ignore the will of the Okinawan people as demonstrated by the referendum and advance construction, his Liberal Democratic Party is likely to face an uphill battle in the Lower House by-election to fill Okinawa’s No. 3 constituency on April 21 to replace Denny Tamaki, who resigned as a lawmaker to run for governor last September.
That tendency could spread beyond Okinawa and emerge in the quadrennial unified local elections in April and the triennial Upper House election in summer.
One source in the government remains bullish about the situation.
“Although (the outcome) may stir some sympathies for Okinawa, it will not affect the Cabinet’s approval ratings nationwide,” the source said.
But some members of the LDP are concerned their hard-line stance could have a negative impact on the elections, with a middle-ranking lawmaker saying, “I wonder if (the government) could show a more considerate attitude toward Okinawa, at least a little more.”
Etsushi Tanifuji, a political science professor at Waseda University, said the referendum was symbolic of the Abe administration’s tendency to bulldoze its policies through without sufficient explanation and consultation.
As examples of Abe’s high-handed style, the professor cited controversial laws allowing more foreign workers into Japan and authorizing the opening of casino resorts, both enacted in the Diet last year by the ruling coalition with Komeito.
“The referendum could be a turning point for voters across the country to realize again Abe’s politics, hurting the reputation of his administration,” Tanifuji said.
The move may reinforce speculation that Abe will dissolve the House of Representatives for a simultaneous double election with the House of Councilors poll, even though the four-year term of the more powerful Lower House lasts until October 2021.
If the LDP loses its advantage in the Upper House, Abe will miss his chance to amend the supreme law, one of his long-cherished political goals.
Pro-amendment forces now control two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Diet, satisfying the requirement to initiate the process needed for amendment. The proposal must eventually be approved by a simple majority in a national referendum.
Since the number of pro-amendment lawmakers remains slightly above the threshold in the 242-seat Upper House, the LDP needs to maintain as many seats as possible.
In a high-stakes gambit, Abe may call a Lower House election to catch opposition parties unprepared, Japanese political watchers say.
Toru Yoshida, a professor of political science at Hokkaido University, said the referendum could set the stage for opposition parties opposed to the relocation plan to work together in the upcoming polls.
But he also noted that it is imperative for the opposition parties to present their counterproposals for the relocation plan instead of merely just opposing it, if they want to win the trust of the voters.