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Tamaki may struggle in Okinawa poll despite pledge to follow late governor's policies

Denny Tamaki, secretary-general of the Liberal Party, announces his candidacy in the Okinawa gubernatorial election at a news conference at a Naha hotel on Aug. 29, 2018. (Mainichi)
Then Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima speaks to reporters in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, on Aug. 14, 2018, after affirming his candidacy in the Okinawa gubernatorial election. (Mainichi)

Opposition legislator Denny Tamaki, who has affirmed his candidacy in the upcoming Okinawa gubernatorial election, is poised to continue late Gov. Takeshi Onaga's efforts to block the relocation of the U.S. military's Air Station Futenma within the prefecture.

However, he is unlikely to receive solid support from the "All Okinawa" alliance comprising liberal and some conservative political forces that had swept Onaga to power as some conservatives have left the alliance.

Still, former Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima, backed by the ruling bloc in national politics, and his camp are wary that Tamaki could gain a large number of votes from those sympathetic toward Onaga because of the Tamaki camp's attempt to avenge Onaga's death.

The upcoming Okinawa gubernatorial election will likely be a two-way battle between Sakima, backed by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Tamaki, secretary-general of the Liberal Party.

Tamaki has pledged to take over the policies of former Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who died of pancreatic cancer on Aug. 8, if elected.

At an Aug. 29 news conference where he declared his candidacy, Tamaki criticized the Abe government for going ahead with the relocation of Futenma base in Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago in a high-handed manner.

He said the government "is creating a fait accompli so that local residents will give up" blocking the base relocation within the prefecture, and "causing a conflict and split between residents." He then asked, "Can we call this a law-governed country?"

Tamaki held the news conference at a hotel near Onaga's home in the Okinawa prefectural capital of Naha. The conference was attended by Takeharu Onaga, the governor's second son, and Deputy Gov. Kiichiro Jahana, as well as those representing political forces making up the "All Okinawa" alliance.

Tamaki looked at a photo of the late governor on display at the latter's home, saying, "Please extend a helping hand to me," demonstrating that the gubernatorial race is a battle to avenge Onaga's death.

Noting that prefectural residents are angry at the central government over the base relocation, a high-ranking member of Tamaki's camp said the candidate "will have a good chance of winning if he emphasizes he will continue Onaga's policies."

Tamaki was not named as a possible candidate to succeed Onaga immediately after the governor passed away. However, Tamaki emerged as a major candidate after the existence of audio data recording Onaga mentioning the opposition legislator as a possible successor came to light.

Ichiro Ozawa, co-leader of the Liberal Party of which Tamaki is a member, originally belonged to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the ruling party in the national government, as did Onaga.

A senior member of the LDP's Okinawa prefectural chapter expressed wariness of Tamaki's candidacy, saying, "I guess Mr. Onaga thought that Tamaki could garner support even from conservative voters." There are observations within the Abe administration that Tamaki can win support from not only those backing opposition parties but a broader range of voters. "Mr. Onaga is formidable," said a central government source.

Tamaki intends not to receive official support from any political party. At the news conference, Tamaki said, "All Okinawa takes the position of a party for prefectural residents."

However, the current situation of the political community in Okinawa differs largely from that when Onaga was elected governor four years ago.

During his election campaign, Onaga, who once served as secretary-general of the LDP's prefectural chapter, led a united front between liberals and part of the conservative bloc with the goal of blocking the relocation of Futenma base within the prefecture. He beat then Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who had approved the central government's plan to reclaim areas off the coast of Henoko, by about a 100,000-vote margin.

However, the national government steadily went ahead with the relocation work even after Onaga took office. Candidates supported by Gov. Onaga were defeated by central government-backed candidates in a series of mayoral elections in the prefecture, including one in February in Nago where work to build a substitute facility for Futenma base is underway, dealing a serious blow to him. Moreover, some conservatives that supported Onaga, including major local hotel operator Kariyushi, seceded from the All Okinawa alliance.

The Tamaki camp is asking opposition parties in national politics to support him. Yukio Edano, leader of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) that established its Okinawa chapter on Aug. 29, clarified his position for the first time to oppose the relocation of Futenma base to Henoko. Yuichiro Tamaki, co-leader of the opposition Democratic Party for the People told reporters in Chiba, "I'd like Denny (Tamaki) to perform well."

On Aug. 28, Ozawa asked the leaders of five opposition parties including the CDP to support Tamaki.

Ozawa visited Okinawa on Aug. 24 in order to urge the All Okinawa camp to not become too optimistic in its campaigning for Tamaki. "Some believe that we can win with an avenge battle mindset, but we can't win just by inducing such a mood," Ozawa said.

In a June Niigata gubernatorial race, a candidate that six opposition parties supported lost to a ruling coalition-backed candidate.

It remains to be seen if local political forces and residents who are opposed to the base relocation within the prefecture can defend the position of governor -- their last stronghold.

On the other hand, the LDP has joined hands with its coalition partner Komeito and the opposition Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) in fielding Sakima in a desperate bid to recapture the position of governor. The governing coalition believes that Sakima's victory in the election would lead to the steady relocation of the Futenma base to Henoko.

Nevertheless, the LDP-led bloc intends to avoid mentioning the base relocation as far as possible and instead emphasize the effects of the central government's efforts to revitalize Okinawa's economy. However, the alliance will also avoid criticizing Onaga because the camp is wary that attacking the late governor would only heighten a mood of avenging his death.

"If someone calls for the promotion of the base relocation from outside, it would complicate the situation. We'll calmly watch over the election and respect local voters' judgment," said LDP-Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, suggesting that the ruling coalition wants to avoid the base issue becoming a point of contention.

The Defense Ministry has postponed part of the preparatory work at Henoko, which was scheduled to begin on Aug. 17, to avoid provoking prefectural residents who sympathize with Onaga, who passed away while working to block the relocation.

Observations persist within Sakima's camp that a battle to avenge Onaga's death would be disadvantageous to the Abe government in the gubernatorial race.

Moreover, Komeito is split over the relocation of the Futenma base. While the party headquarters in Tokyo underscores the need to go ahead with the relocation, the party's Okinawa chapter is seeking to move the base out of the prefecture, casting a shadow over Sakima camp's campaigning.

(Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau, Hiroshi Higa, Kyushu News Department, and Nozomu Takeuchi and Kazumasa Kawabe, Political News Department)

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