Tokyo/Naha – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration appears poised to take a stronger stance on a planned U.S. base relocation within Okinawa Prefecture following Sunday’s prefectural assembly election.
In the election, Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki’s camp, which is opposed to the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma air base to the Henoko coastal area, narrowly maintained its majority in the assembly, while Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party increased its share.
Although the LDP failed again to win a majority in the Okinawa assembly, the election results were apparently enough to give a boost to the Abe administration.
“It was a great achievement that the party significantly expanded its assembly share,” Abe claimed at an LDP executive meeting Monday.
“The LDP increased its assembly seats by fighting the election with a platform including the stance of accepting the Henoko base relocation,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference the same day.
“We think that local people’s understanding (for the base project) is deepening considerably,” the top government spokesman said.
The LDP and the government believe that the election results suggest that opposition to the U.S. base project among the people of Okinawa is beginning to wobble.
“We were very close, almost reaching a majority,” an LDP executive said, noting that Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner, canceled a plan to field two candidates in the local election due to the epidemic.
“It was the best possible result, and we’ll win the next gubernatorial election” in Okinawa, a senior government official said.
Speaking to reporters early on Monday after the election results came out, Gov. Tamaki admitted that the results were “worse than expected” for the pro-governor camp.
However, the governor, who is calling for the U.S. base to be moved outside the prefecture, insisted that local people’s will against the base project “has not been shaken,” attributing the election results to the effects of the COVID-19 epidemic.
Tamaki said he will continue to make every effort to block the U.S. base relocation.
After Tamaki was elected in 2018, the pro-governor camp won a House of Representatives by-election in 2019 and a constituency battle in the 2019 House of Councilors poll. Also in 2019, Okinawans voted against the base relocation in a prefectural referendum.
But in the latest election, the pro-governor camp’s share in the 48-seat prefectural assembly fell to 25 seats, while the LDP and others increased their seats to 23 from 20.
These are “tough figures for us,” an aide to Tamaki said. “But we don’t think the opposition to the Henoko base project has subsided.”
In the governor’s shrinking list of tactics to prevent the base relocation, Tamaki now plans to make full use of his authority over foundation improvement work in Henoko, which is planned by the central government.
Related work in the planned U.S. base site is currently suspended due to the coronavirus epidemic, but the government “will resume it in a steady manner,” a senior Defense Ministry official said.