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City in Okinawa won't join referendum on US base relocation after budget cut

The Miyakojima Municipal Assembly is seen in Miyakojima, Okinawa Prefecture, in this photo taken on Dec. 18, 2018. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Higa)

MIYAKOJIMA, Okinawa -- The mayor of this city announced on Dec. 18 that it will not join a prefecture-wide referendum on the relocation of a U.S. Marine base within the southernmost prefecture after the municipal assembly passed a budget bill omitting funds necessary to conduct the poll.

The referendum is scheduled to be held on Feb. 24 next year throughout Okinawa Prefecture over the pros and cons of the transfer of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the city of Ginowan to the Henoko district of the city of Nago, both within the prefecture.

On Dec. 18, the Miyakojima Municipal Assembly passed an amended supplementary budget bill that excludes about 13.82 million yen needed for administering the referendum. Although Mayor Toshihiko Shimoji called for redoing the vote, the municipal assembly once again passed the bill. Consequently, the mayor announced at a press conference that he would not call the referendum, saying, "I respect the decision made by the city assembly's vote."

It marked the first time that the mayor of a municipality in Okinawa has announced that it will not execute budgets necessary for the referendum. The move may affect other local bodies in the prefecture.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki has pushed the referendum, saying it "will provide an essential opportunity for prefectural residents to have their wishes directly reflected" in the relocation plan. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold the poll in all of Okinawa's 41 cities, towns and villages, as the central government moved to begin land reclamation work in the coastal areas of Henoko for the relocation on Dec. 14.

"Residents should not be deprived of their opportunities for voting depending on where they live," Gov. Tamaki emphasized before the press corps, suggesting that he will hold a discussion with the Miyakojima Municipal Government over the issue.

The governor continued, "The Okinawa Prefectural Government and the municipal governments in the prefecture are responsible for holding the referendum, and will put efforts into implementing the poll in all municipalities."

While the prefectural government is eligible to request that the Miyakojima Municipal Government rectify its decision under the Local Autonomy Act, it remains uncertain if Mayor Shimoji, who is close to the central government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, will exercise his authority to allocate budgets for the referendum. The Abe administration has pressed forward with the relocation, in total disregard of the prefectural residents' wishes displayed in the September gubernatorial election that swept anti-relocation Tamaki to governorship.

Based on a prefectural ordinance for the referendum promulgated on Oct. 31, the prefectural government has handed over the authority for paperwork necessary for the referendum to municipal governments, such as creating the lists of eligible voters and ballot counting. While the prefectural government will ultimately foot the roughly 550 million yen budget necessary for conducting the referendum, municipal governments also need to set aside their own budgets for the poll.

Of the 41 municipalities in the prefecture, 19 have already passed budget bills for the referendum. However, the Yonaguni town assembly voted down the budget bill on Dec. 13, followed by the Urasoe city assembly and the Motobu town assembly on Dec. 14. The mayors of those three municipalities are set to call on the respective assemblies to reconsider their decisions.

The prefectural referendum will ask voters if they are for or against the base relocation to Henoko. The prefectural assembly passed the ordinance for the referendum in October after a citizens group collected some 90,000 signatures calling for the poll under the Local Autonomy Act and submitted them to the prefectural government.

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Higa, Kyushu News Department, and Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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