The upcoming mayoral election in Ginowan is shaping up as a proxy fight between the national government and Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who have entered into a full-blown court battle over the plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the city to another site in Okinawa.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe claimed last week that the outcome of the Jan. 24 election won’t affect the government project to build the replacement base in the Henoko area of Nago in northern Okinawa. But Onaga is concerned that a victory by the incumbent backed by Abe’s ruling coalition, who remains vague on whether he supports the Futenma relocation to Henoko, would enable his administration to charge that the popular will in Okinawa is not entirely against the controversial project. On the other hand, a victory by a contender backed by the governor may spell trouble for the administration’s plan to forge ahead with the base plan over local opposition.

Much is at stake in the row over the Futenma relocation issue, which last year developed into an extraordinary situation in which the central government and Okinawa Prefecture have sued each other. The Abe administration says construction of a new U.S. military base is a national security issue and essentially a central government matter. But Onaga contends that the dispute concerns the fundamental questions of local autonomy and democracy in Japan. Nearly 20 years after the conclusion of a 1996 bilateral accord that was meant to allay local anti-bases sentiment through the realignment of U.S. military facilities on the island, the relocation of Futenma remains a divisive issue.

“Does local autonomy or democracy exist in Japan? Is it normal that Okinawa alone bears the burden? I want to ask (these questions) to all of the people (of Japan),” Onaga said in early December during the first hearing in the lawsuit filed by the government to override his revocation of a land reclamation permit that was granted by his predecessor in 2013.

His predecessor, Hirokazu Nakaima, gave the go-ahead for the government’s reclamation off Henoko in 2013, reversing a campaign pledge to try to move the base out of Okinawa. Key elections in Okinawa since then have been won by opponents of the Henoko project, including the November 2014 gubernatorial race, which Nakaima lost to Onaga, who campaigned on the promise of doing everything in his power to halt the Henoko construction. The gap between Nakaima’s 2013 decision and the outcome of the elections — a key mechanism in a democracy to get popular will reflected in political decisions — seems clear enough.

The Abe administration, which sees progress in the long-stalled Futenma relocation as crucial to the smooth operation of Japan’s security alliance with the United States, says the election results do not alter the validity of Nakaima’s permit, which must be honored for the sake of stability in administrative decisions. When Onaga finally put his words into action — by revoking the landfill permit last October, citing “legal flaws” in the decision — the government responded with an administrative procedure to suspend the validity of Onaga’s move and then filed the suit asking the court to empower it to override the governor’s revocation. Onaga filed a countersuit late last month, charging that the government acted illegally in invalidating his decision. The judiciary is expected to hand down its judgment this year. The national government appears confident it will prevail, as it did in the last court battle with Okinawa two decades ago. But it’s unclear if that will spell the end of the legal battle over the Henoko project.

Meanwhile, Okinawa’s popular will on the issue will be tested again in a series of elections in coming months — including the Ginowan mayoral race, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly election in June and the Upper House election in the summer, likely in July, in which the minister in charge of Okinawa issues in Abe’s Cabinet, the locally elected Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Aiko Shimajiri, will be seeking re-election. Whether the gap between local voters’ will and the 2013 decision by Nakaima remains must be closely watched.

In court, the Abe administration has argued that matters pertaining to national security fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the national government, and a governor is not in a position to make a judgment. But the construction of a military base will effectively require consent of the prefectural government since the matter also pertains to the administration of the area around the site.

Onaga’s contention that the heavy concentration of U.S. military bases in Okinawa, which hosts 74 percent of facilities solely used by the American forces in Japan in a prefecture accounting for a mere 0.6 percent of the national land space, runs counter to the principle of local autonomy under the Constitution should not be simply dismissed.

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