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China-Taiwan tensions place security at center of Okinawa election

  • August 12, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 5:40 a.m.
  • English Press
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NAHA/TOKYO — The heightened tensions surrounding Taiwan loom large over nearby Okinawa’s gubernatorial election, now just a month away, with the debate over U.S. bases in the prefecture taking on new urgency. 


The race follows an upper house election last month that saw the opposition-backed candidate squeak through with a narrow margin. Japan’s ruling coalition, which wants to advance the relocation of a U.S. base, may have an opportunity to break through amid growing security worries, but the three-way race could end up splitting its base of potential voters.


The Sept. 11 election is expected to pit incumbent Denny Tamaki against Atsushi Sakima, a former mayor of Ginowan, and former lower house lawmaker Mikio Shimoji. Campaigning will begin Aug. 25. 


Tamaki seeks to win reelection with support from his “All Okinawa” camp, which opposes the Japanese government’s plan to transfer the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Base from Ginowan to the less-populated coastal area of Henoko. He has been endorsed by the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, among others.


Japan’s conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party and junior partner Komeito on Tuesday announced their support for Sakima. The coalition also backed Sakima against Tamaki in the last gubernatorial election in 2018.


Shimoji, who has been a member of the LDP and the conservative Japan Innovation Party, could peel off some conservative votes from Sakima. His late entry changes the picture from what the ruling coalition had originally expected would be a head-to-head contest.


Okinawa houses a large chunk of the U.S. forces stationed in Japan, and would be on the front lines of any conflict involving Taiwan. China’s recent drills around Taiwan in response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit last week forced fishing vessels to halt operations near Yonaguni, the closest inhabited Japanese island, sitting just 110 km away from Taiwan.


The election will be directly affect the Futenma relocation process. The governor has the power to approve design changes and necessary landfill work, which Tamaki has used to stymie the process.


The ruling coalition’s view is that the relocation to Henoko is the “only solution” to maintain the deterrence capabilities of the Japan-U.S. alliance and to eliminate the risks that the base poses to local residents.


Okinawa’s political landscape in recent years has revolved around Tamaki’s All Okinawa camp and the LDP-Komeito alliance. Anti-relocation candidates won the governorship in 2014 and 2018, and the winners of the last three upper house elections in 2016, 2019 and 2022 were each supported by All Okinawa.


But All Okinawa’s momentum appears to be weakening. The margin of victory for its favored candidate shrank from over 100,000 votes in 2016 to more than 60,000 in 2019, and further to under 3,000 last month — less than 0.5 percentage point. The LDP won two of the four seats up for grabs in October’s lower house race.


On the local level, LDP-Komeito candidates won four mayoral races in the first few months of 2022. Some in the ruling coalition have suggested that a hard-nosed defense policy is more attractive to voters in a tumultuous security environment.


The ruling coalition is focusing on economic issues in the upcoming election, including revitalization funds for the prefecture. Meanwhile, Shimoji is positioning himself as a third choice, associated with neither the LDP nor All Okinawa.


Splitting the conservative vote could work to the incumbent’s advantage. Candidates backed by the new Sanseito and NHK parties reportedly won some support from conservatives in the last upper house election, which could have cost the LDP candidate the election.


Sanseito and NHK won larger shares of the vote in Okinawa than anywhere else in Japan. The prefecture is usually a stronghold for the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, as well, but both saw their vote shares drop compared with 2019, suggesting that voters are seeking new alternatives.

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