NAHA -- The Nago mayoral election set for February will pit the incumbent against a candidate who has the support of the central government, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and LDP junior coalition partner Komeito, in a race whose outcome will directly affect the controversial construction of a U.S. military base in the city.
Dec. 28 marks one month until the official launch of the election campaign period, with voting to take place on Feb. 4.
Incumbent Mayor Susumu Inamine, 72, has the support of Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, an opponent of the construction of a U.S. military base in the city's Henoko district to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the southern Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan. Inamine will be running against Taketoyo Toguchi, a 56-year-old former Nago city assembly member who in addition to being endorsed by the central government and the LDP, has also secured the backing of Komeito, which in the previous mayoral race had left whom to support up to individual party members.
The results of the election are expected to greatly impact the gubernatorial election next fall, and the prospects of the construction of the U.S. military base in Henoko.
When Toguchi received an official letter of endorsement from Komeito's Okinawa prefectural chapter on Dec. 28, relief washed over the candidate and others close to the LDP. There are an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Komeito votes in Nago, and for the LDP, which lost the previous election by about 4,000 votes, getting an endorsement from Komeito was an "absolute must" in the upcoming election.
In contrast to Mayor Inamine, who has clearly spelled out his opposition to the new U.S. Marine base, Toguchi has not addressed the base relocation, instead emphasizing child-rearing and educational support policies. At a Dec. 28 press conference to announce his policies, Toguchi only went as far as to say that he would be closely following the lawsuit between Okinawa Prefecture and the central government regarding the base relocation.
The Feb. 4 mayoral election will be the sixth in which the Henoko relocation will be a major point of contention since the relocation plan first emerged. In the last election, the central government and LDP-backed candidate promoted the base relocation with unprecedented enthusiasm. This is said to have cost him the election, as he was unable to win the votes held by Komeito, whose prefectural branch is opposed to the relocation.
As an LDP member of the Nago Municipal Assembly, Toguchi embraced the construction of the new base in Henoko. With the announcement of his candidacy, however, Toguchi has stopped speaking about his views on the relocation. Discussions between the LDP and Komeito that led to the latter's decision to support Toguchi was reached after the Toguchi camp agreed not to mention Henoko, and instead incorporate into his election platform a pledge to move U.S. Marines currently in Okinawa Prefecture either outside the prefecture or outside the country.
"Inamine's two-term, eight-year management of city government has brought a sense of stagnation to the people," a source close to the LDP said. "(The Toguchi camp) will address problems relating to everyday life, and not make relocation a major issue in the election."
In response, a city assembly member who supports Inamine said, "If we are going to demand the relocation of U.S. Marines out of Okinawa Prefecture or out of the country, the Henoko base would be unnecessary. The people will not be fooled by logic full of holes like that."
Such criticism, however, is a sign that the Inamine camp senses that it's facing a growing threat. In response to Komeito's decision to support the LDP-backed candidate, Kantoku Teruya, a Social Democratic Party member of the House of Representatives who opposes the Henoko base construction, said, "The situation is different from what it was four years ago. If we go in convinced that we're going to win, we'll be disappointed."
"I will put all my might into supporting the Nago mayoral race," Okinawa Gov. Onaga said in an interview with various news outlets on Dec. 21.
The "All Okinawa" camp, which supports Gov. Onaga, has scored consecutive victories in national elections at the prefectural level, but in 2017 lost three consecutive mayoral races to conservative, pro-central government candidates. The central government began reclamation work for the new base off Henoko in April this year, and Gov. Onaga has been unable to come up with effective measures to stop it. Grumbling has been heard from some of Onaga's supporters, causing unity around the governor to waver.
It is under such circumstances that the Nago mayoral race will take place. Gov. Onaga, who has relied on "the will of the people" to support his fight against the central government, must retain that mandate through the victory of an anti-base Nago mayor next February, as he heads into the gubernatorial race later in the year. An Inamine loss, however, would be a great blow to the anti-relocation camp.
"Nago is the very site of the fight over base relocation," an aide to the governor said. "(If Inamine loses,) the governor's re-election will become more difficult."