NAHA/TOKYO -- Denny Tamaki, a candidate backed by the opposition camp, won the gubernatorial election in the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa on Sept. 30. The result deals a serious blow to the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe amid its effort to relocate a controversial U.S. base inside the prefecture.
According to the prefectural election management commission, Tamaki, a 58-year-old former Diet member, received 396,632 votes, while his main contender Atsushi Sakima, 54, who was backed by Abe, garnered 316,458 votes. Two other candidates collected less than 4,000 votes, respectively. The voter turnout was 63.24 percent.
Tamaki is against the transfer of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from its current location in the southern Okinawa city of Ginowan to the Henoko district of the city of Nago in the central part of the prefecture. Sakima was a former Ginowan mayor.
Tamaki has pledged to follow in the footsteps of the late Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who strongly opposed construction of a new U.S. military base in Okinawa. Tamaki has vowed to block the relocation of the Futenma base within the prefecture.
"Mr. Onaga's will to prevent the construction of a new military base in the prefecture has been shared by prefectural residents, which gave me a boost," the governor-elect said. "I'll stick to my pledge to block the construction of a new base in Henoko without wavering."
Sakima expressed regret about the outcome. "I emphasized that I would contribute to prefectural residents by making achievements in various policy measures including the base issue. It's unfortunate that my appeal wasn't supported by residents."
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he took the gubernatorial race results with gravity. "The central government accepts the outcome of the election seriously, and will endeavor to revitalize the Okinawa economy and lessen the burden of U.S. bases on the prefecture," the prime minister told reporters at his office.
The victory of Tamaki means that the tension between the central and Okinawa governments over the base issue is certain to continue. The election was the first major race since Abe won his third term in the presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party earlier in the month. The loss of a candidate backed by the Abe administration may affect the administration's efforts to win general local elections and the House of Councillors race next year.
The result on Sept. 30 is the second victory in a row for those opposing the base relocation in Okinawa, since Onaga won the 2014 election. Onaga died in August, ushering in the gubernatorial election two months earlier than planned.
Fully 84 percent of people who are opposed to the base relocation said they voted for Tamaki, according to an exit poll of voters conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun and Ryukyu Broadcasting Corp.
The poll showed those against the base transfer made up 48 percent of respondents. These respondents said the issue was the most important policy matter in deciding who they voted for.
Tamaki succeeded in winning independent voters by emphasizing his status as a successor to Onaga, who attracted support from both progressive and conservative camps by pushing to stop the Futenma relocation.
National opposition parties that supported Tamaki made efforts not to appear in the center stage of election campaigning, as they lost the June Niigata gubernatorial race in northern Japan by showing too much of their support. In the latest race, the opposition camp managed to create a setup where Okinawa was facing off against the powerful central government. This tactic succeeded in overcoming the ruling camp, which had taken an organized voting approach.
Despite his victory, Tamaki has little room for maneuvering to stop the base relocation. The central government is bent on relocating the base, and is prepared to take the case to court to resume suspended land reclamation work.
"Tamaki's win does not change anything. We will go ahead (with the relocation plan) as needed," said an official with the Ministry of Defense.
For the Abe administration and its junior coalition partner Komeito, the loss of their candidate Sakima is a stinging defeat.
"People may begin to think that they cannot win the House of Councillors election next year with the Abe administration," one lawmaker said.
The opposition camp is now eager to attack the administration and the ruling camp in the upcoming extraordinary session of the Diet. "The method of dumping what the government and the ruling coalition want on Okinawa will not work anymore," commented Tetsuro Fukuyama, Secretary-General of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.
Throughout the campaign, Sakima did not clearly state his position on the Henoko transfer, while the Abe administration and the LDP dispatched their top officials including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai to support the candidate. Komeito also used its well-organized election machine, but could not win enough support for Sakima, who is relatively unknown among local voters.