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Opponents of US base transfer keep majority in Okinawa assembly

This photo taken July 27, 2018, from a drone shows an aerial view of the Henoko coastal area of Nago city in Okinawa Prefecture where seawall construction work for relocating a U.S. military base from a crowded residential district in Ginowan city, also in Okinawa, is under way. (Kyodo)

NAHA, Japan (Kyodo) -- Candidates opposing the planned relocation of a key U.S. military base in Okinawa maintained a majority in Sunday's local assembly election in Nago, where the replacement facility will be built.

The result could bode ill for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push for the long-stalled transfer of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and also affect the Okinawa gubernatorial election on Sept. 30.

Candidates opposed to the relocation of the base from a crowded residential area of Ginowan to a less populated coastal district in Nago won 15 seats in the 26-member assembly. The remaining 11 elected were supportive of the relocation or did not clarify their position.

Voter turnout was 65.04 percent, down 5.36 percentage points from the previous election in 2014 and the lowest on record since 1970, according to the local election board in Nago.

The results came after independent newcomer Taketoyo Toguchi, backed by the central government, defeated anti-U.S. base incumbent Susumu Inamine in the Nago mayoral election in February.

Some 20 people attended a rally held Monday morning in front of the gate of the U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Schwab, located next to the relocation site.

"We won. We stopped the wind blowing at the time of the February mayoral election," a man said at the rally.

Toguchi told reporters on Monday, "Citizens' opinions are divided to some extent," adding that he will closely watch the response by the prefectural and central governments over the base issue.

Despite the majority of assembly members opposing the base relocation, a senior official of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said, "The plan to push forward the base transfer remains unchanged."

But Tetsuro Fukuyama, a senior member of the main opposition party the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said, "(The election) displayed persistent opposition to the base transfer."

The relocation plan will also be the most contentious issue in the upcoming gubernatorial election to fill the post left vacant by the recent death of Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who confronted the central government over the plan and led efforts to reduce the U.S. military presence in Japan's southern island prefecture.

Following Onaga's instruction, the prefecture last month retracted its approval for landfill work at the relocation site, claiming illegality in the application process.

Fukuyama said, "I strongly feel that by carrying forward the will of Gov. Takeshi Onaga, the anti-base movement is gaining traction. I think (the assembly election) will provide momentum for the gubernatorial race."

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