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Shinzo Abe

Why the Okinawa election outcome may weaken PM Abe’s grip on power

Experts believe the prime minister’s administration will push ahead with the relocation of a controversial US army base, even though Okinawan people expressed their strong opposition to it years ago

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 October, 2018, 1:46pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2018, 10:18pm

The defeat of a candidate backed by Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Sunday’s Okinawa gubernatorial race could weaken Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s dominance in his administration following his less than convincing victory in the party’s recent leadership contest.

It will also likely have an impact on Abe’s efforts to generate momentum toward a series of gubernatorial and other local elections next spring and the House of Councillors election next summer, and even affect his constitutional amendment drive, observers said.

The result of the election in Okinawa, held following the death last month of Takeshi Onaga, a staunch opponent of a plan to move a key US Marine base within the prefecture, is likely to further complicate the relocation, although the Okinawa government is seen as having only limited options to resist the move.

Whether voters would back a candidate campaigning as Onaga’s political heir was the focal point of the election, said Jun Shimabukuro, professor at the Faculty of Education at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa versed in Okinawa local autonomy.

Repeating his opposition to the plan to move the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a densely populated area of Ginowan to the less populated district of Henoko in Nago, the newly elected Denny Tamaki, a 58-year-old former opposition lawmaker, had insisted he was the “successor to Onaga”.

Shinzo Abe suffers Okinawa election defeat over new US base

Shimabukuro said Onaga’s death played a role in making many Okinawans “realise the importance of the base issue again”, and that this factor gave Tamaki the edge in what was widely thought to be a neck-and-neck battle.

The tactical decision by Tamaki’s main rival Atsushi Sakima, 54, the former Ginowan mayor, to avoid making clear his stance on construction of a new base in Henoko backfired.

Many experts believe that the Abe administration will push ahead with the relocation plan, even though Okinawan people expressed their strong opposition to it four years ago by electing Onaga governor.

“Unless the Okinawa base issue puts the approval rating of Abe’s administration into a nosedive, the prime minister will never change his policy,” said Seiji Endo, a professor specialising in international politics at the Faculty of Law at Seikei University in Tokyo.

At the same time, Endo said the central government should clearly spell out its reasons if it insists that Japan really needs US bases in Okinawa.

“It’s quite natural that the US side would see it as unsavoury from a long-term viewpoint if their bases in Japan are unwelcome to local residents, and actually some Americans seem to have begun to feel so,” said Endo.

“To manage the alliance with the United States steadily, Tokyo should make efforts to gain local people’s understanding.”

Tamaki has yet to lay out any specific measures to block the base transfer plan except some legal actions. But according to some experts, his chief task should be to foster the view that the base issue is not just a problem for Okinawa but for Japan as a whole and even a matter of international import.

“The whole Japanese people have to think about the issue as their own,” said Yoshitoshi Taira, research associate at the Regional Comprehensive Research Institute at Dokkyo University in Saitama, near Tokyo.

Taira, an Okinawa native, said that Tamaki should mould national public opinion on the base issue and change the long-held perception that “Okinawa is in a confrontation” with the rest of Japan.

Shimabukuro said it is crucial for Tamaki to broaden the perception that “the US Marine Corps have nothing to do with national defence of Japan.”

Whatever the result in Okinawa election, US troops are there to stay

“Resorting only to a legal battle, he can’t block the base relocation. The new governor should recognise the importance of appealing to public opinion in the United States,” he said.

“If this election result encourages US policymakers to re-evaluate the current plan, then it will serve as a good opportunity to take the necessary steps to put the US-Japan alliance on a more stable political foundation,” said Mike Mochizuki, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

Depicting the Okinawa base issue as the “Achilles' heel” of the alliance, Mochizuki proposed that top officials of the State Department and Pentagon “welcome the new Okinawan governor” when he visits Washington and “demonstrate their willingness to have a constructive dialogue.”