TOKYO (AFP) – Opinion polls in Japan’s far southern Okinawa islands have given an anti-US base candidate the edge in next weekend’s gubernatorial election, a potential setback for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The November 16 poll will be the first chance for voters in Okinawa to deliver their verdict on a deal struck last year between Abe and incumbent governor Hirokazu Nakaima, 75.
In what critics said amounted to a bribe, Abe pledged a huge cash injection to the island chain if Nakaima reversed years of opposition to a plan to move the US Marines’ Futenma Air Station from a crowded urban area to a sparsely populated coastal district.
Okinawa is home to more than half of the 47,000 US service personnel stationed in Japan, and strategically key to the US-Japan security alliance at a time of simmering tensions in East Asia.
But there is widespread local hostility to the military presence, with complaints over noise, the risk of accident and a perception that the presence of so many young servicemen is a source of crime.
The move of Futenma to Nago on the northeast coast was first agreed between Tokyo and Washington in the 1990s, but has been stalled by local opponents ever since.
The deadlock has frustrated the Americans and proved a thorn in the side of successive Japanese governments.
But in an abrupt about-face in December, Nakaima decided to approve the start of landfill work at Nago, sparking criticism at home that the one-time stalwart opponent of the relocation had caved in.
Opinion polls published over the weekend put Takeshi Onaga, 64, a former mayor of Okinawa’s capital Naha City, in the lead. He is one of three candidates opposing the relocation plan, although all have slightly different stances on it.
Nakaima is in second place, the polls by the Yomiuri Shimbun and Kyodo News said, although both noted around 20 percent of voters were undecided.
A win for the anti-base Onaga would be a significant blow to the central government, said Hideki Uemura, professor of international politics at Ryutsu Keizai University in Tokyo.
“The Abe administration would be caught between its promise made to the United States and Okinawa,” Uemara said, because the local governor has the power to veto landfill work needed for a new base to be built.
That would leave Abe with the unpalatable choice of over-ruling locally-elected officials or reverting to the cajoling and persuading of recent years, which would not be popular with Washington.