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Ahead of Okinawa governor poll, LDP pushes economy; opposition hopes for Onaga's health

The sea off the Henoko district of the Okinawa Prefecture city of Nago, where U.S. military base relocation work is underway, is pictured in this photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun aircraft on Jan. 27, 2018. (Mainichi)

NAHA -- The Japanese central government and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are stepping up activities here and around Okinawa Prefecture in the lead up to a contentious gubernatorial election later this year centering on the relocation of U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma in Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga visited Okinawa on May 19 and 20, and while appealing to residents about the "results" the current government has achieved in getting a portion of U.S. military land returned to Japan, he also met with the Okinawa Prefecture chapter of the LDP to discuss the selection of the party's gubernatorial candidate.

Those against the relocation of the U.S. base within the prefecture had prepared for the election under the assumption that current Gov. Takeshi Onaga, 67, would run for re-election. However, with Onaga announcing on May 15 that he has pancreatic cancer, it is possible that the shape of the election, which has been viewed as a head-on clash between Onaga, opposed to the relocation of the base to Henoko, and an LDP-backed candidate, may drastically change depending on the governor's commitment to run. The election is expected to be called sometime before Onaga's current four-year term ends on Dec. 9.

On May 20, Suga attended a ceremony commemorating the partial return of the west Futenma housing area at Camp Foster and the planned return of Camp Kisner, also known as the Makiminato Service Area. "In order to lighten the burden (of U.S. forces in Okinawa), we are doing whatever is possible," Suga emphasized. "You can see the fruits of our efforts before your eyes." Afterward, he told the press, "With the return of the land, National Route 58, the vital artery of southern Okinawa, can be widened, and a dramatic reduction in traffic can be expected," explaining his "before your eyes" comment. "Reuse of the land returned by the U.S. military is extremely vital to the revival of Okinawa. We are promoting it as a national strategy."

On the other hand, in response to media inquiries about the upcoming race for governor, Suga commented, "Said in general terms, things like the development of the regional economy and an increase in the quality of housing service for residents -- I think issues like these that hit close to home will be the main point of the election." Instead of touching on the highly controversial base relocation, it seems that the party plans to shift its focus to regional revival in order to gain the support of a broad range of voters.

The background for the strategy comes from the February 2018 win in the Nago mayoral race by a newcomer backed by the LDP, Komeito and the Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party), who focused on economic revival policies. The shift in focus worked in his favor, and led to the defeat of the anti-base relocation incumbent. Since then, the LDP has been using the same tactics in all mayoral elections in the prefecture, with the governing party winning three cities in a row, including the city of Okinawa in April.

The campaign strategy has been so successful that a senior official of the prime minister's office has even called it the "victory equation." With this background, Suga requested top officials at the LDP chapter in the prefecture in the May 19 meeting put forward a candidate in the gubernatorial race who can be backed jointly by the LDP, Komeito and Nippon Ishin.

At first, the LDP planned to reveal its pick for the gubernatorial race this month. However, in order to carefully monitor what Onaga intends to do, the decision has been pushed back. At a meeting of the Okinawa prefectural chapter of the LDP on May 20, it was decided to narrow down the possibilities to four to five candidates by the end of May, and make a final decision in June or later. According to one source, the party is considering individuals who are connected with local media or the mayors of cities in the prefecture.

When Onaga was released from hospital on May 15 after undergoing surgery to remove a tumor from his pancreas, he also disclosed that he would continue treatment after the procedure, including chemotherapy. In the political world of the islands, some believe that it will be difficult for him to run again. The three political factions that support Onaga in the prefectural assembly have become anxious about his recovery, as they believe there is no one to replace him.

In March, the three groups were unanimous in their hope to field Onaga as a candidate for re-election. However, around that time, two local companies in the All Okinawa council that supports Onaga left the organization. After the departure of the firms, it was pointed out that the reformist nature of the group had become stronger, one of the three factions decided earlier this month to create a new group that can support conservative and middle-of-the-road voters.

Onaga has in the past served as the secretary-general of the LDP Okinawa chapter, and has a certain amount of support from conservative voters. Among possible reformist candidates, there is no one that comes close to Onaga as being also favored by conservatives, and one business operator and Onaga supporter revealed, "If Onaga doesn't run, my support is completely undecided."

If Onaga, who has led resistance against the Futenma base location, was to bow out of the election for governor, anti-base political factions would be faced with a very hard task to find a candidate to run in his place. A prefectural assembly member and Onaga supporter said, "There is nothing we can really do right now except move forward hoping that he will recover."

(Japanese original by Katsuya Takahashi, Political News Department, and Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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