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Early voting for referendum on base transfer begins in Okinawa with turnout in focus

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki casts a ballot in early voting for a prefectural referendum over the relocation of a U.S. military base within Okinawa Prefecture, at the Okinawa Municipal Government office on the morning of Feb. 15, 2019. (Pool photo)

NAHA -- Early voting for a Feb. 24 Okinawa Prefecture referendum on the pros and cons of reclamation work related to relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the prefectural city of Nago began on Feb. 15, with Gov. Denny Tamaki casting a ballot and calling for residents to follow suit.

"It is significant for prefectural residents to express their will over the single issue of reclamation work. I want them to cast their ballots based on their own thoughts," Tamaki said, after casting his vote at the Okinawa Municipal Government office on the morning of Feb. 15.

Campaigning for the referendum got underway the day before. Gov. Tamaki, is a staunch opponent of relocation of the base to the Henoko district of Nago in the southernmost prefecture. However, he has to refrain from publicly advocating his position, as the governor is supposed to maintain a neutral stance when providing information on the poll, as required by a prefectural ordinance on the referendum.

While the referendum is supposed to gauge public opinion, if voter turnout dips below 50 percent, doubts may arise over whether the outcome can be portrayed as the public's will. Although it is highly likely that the proportion of votes against the landfill work will form the majority in the upcoming referendum, the turnout and the actual number of votes against land reclamation will also come into focus.

A citizen calls on a passerby to vote in the Feb. 24 prefectural referendum, in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, on Feb. 14, 2019. (Mainichi/Toyokazu Tsumura)

In the September 2018 Okinawa gubernatorial election, whose turnout reached 63.24 percent, Tamaki claimed the governorship by garnering a record 396,632 votes. In the Feb. 24 referendum, if votes for the most popular option account for at least one-fourth of the number of all eligible voters, the governor must respect the outcome, according to the ordinance. As there are some 1.16 million voters eligible to vote in the poll, some 290,000 votes for one of the options will be needed to clear the one-fourth threshold. It is feasible that if the majority of ballots cast turn out to be against reclamation work, that threshold could be reached with a voter turnout of 50 percent.

Local chapters of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito, which form the ruling coalition in national politics and are wary of the anti-relocation movement catching steam, have left the decision about whether to go to the polls to each party member. A person close to the Okinawa Prefectural Government accordingly commented "The hurdle for the turnout to reach 50 percent is fairly high."

A senior official with the LDP's Okinawa prefectural chapter commented, "If the turnout fails to reach 50 percent, the significance of the referendum could be called into question."

Meanwhile, participants in the "All Okinawa" movement of both liberal and conservative camps opposing base construction off Henoko pledged to "demonstrate residents' overwhelming objection to the base relocation" at rallies held in front of U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab in Henoko and elsewhere on Feb. 14.

Morimasa Goya, chairman of Kanehide Group, told rally participants near Camp Schwab, "The upcoming referendum is meant to put an end to confrontation among Okinawa residents. Let's send a message that we don't want any further burden of hosting U.S. military bases."

"It is important to demonstrate residents' will against the Henoko relocation over and over again," said a prefectural assembly member in support of Gov. Tamaki. Another assembly member stated, "Even though the outcome of the referendum is not legally binding, if an overwhelming majority of votes are against the base relocation, that will form a strong basis for the governor not to approve a change to the construction plan" by the central government. The national government is set to make changes to the design of the new facility as early as this spring as part of the seabed in the planned reclamation area was found to be unstable.

Central government officials are wary of any impact the results of the prefectural referendum could have on the House of Representatives Okinawa No. 3 constituency by-election this coming April and the summer House of Councillors contest. A senior central government official complained about the ballot offering only "yes," "no," or "neither" choices.

"If the referendum does not present voters with a choice while touching on removal of the danger posed by the Futenma air base (by its location in a densely populated area), the number of votes opposing the reclamation work will naturally be high," the senior official said.

(Japanese original by Tadashi Sano, Kyushu News Department, and Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau, and Noriaki Kinoshita, Political News Department)

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