EDITORIAL: Nago Poll Result Doesn’t Mean Voters Resigned From Basic Plan

Government-backed incumbent President Taketoyo Toguchi was comfortably re-elected mayor of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture on January 23. His rival, who had the backing of Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, campaigned against the central government’s relentless drive to build a US military base. off the city’s Henoko district.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government is moving forward with a controversial land reclamation project to provide a replacement facility to take over the functions of the United States Marine Corps Air Base Futenma in Ginowan, also in the prefecture.

The outcome of the first in a series of important elections to be held in Okinawa this year has dealt a blow to “All Okinawa”, a nonpartisan political force supporting Tamaki. An Upper House election is scheduled for the summer and a gubernatorial ballot will take place in the fall.

A simplistic view of the election result would suggest that this meant acceptance of the basic plan by local voters. But that wouldn’t take into account the complicated feelings locals have about it. Okinawans have been victims of the central government’s authoritarian actions to push through its confused policy on the issue over the past quarter century, which has caused a severe rift in the local community.

The Asahi Shimbun, in conjunction with a local media, launched a survey immediately after the start of the official campaign period for the election and found that the largest number of voters, 54%, opposed the plan of Henoko base. This compared to 24 percent who supported him. But when asked which issues would most affect their decisions in elections, 50% cited measures to promote local development, compared to 30% for the Futenma relocation project.

The poll indicated that voters’ attention was drawn to wallet issues due to the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Voter turnout hit a record high of 68.32 percent, down more than 8 points from the previous mayoral election. Low voter turnout was no doubt partly due to COVID-19 restrictions on campaigning. But we are troubled by the sense of resignation expressed by many citizens who have said that nothing will change, no matter how strongly they express their opposition to the government’s plan.

Voters in Okinawa elected local government leaders and Diet members opposed to the U.S. Basic Plan and made their rejection clear in a prefectural referendum. But successive administrations have continued to push the basic Henoko project, which the government says is the “only option”. The will of the public voting in the prefecture was brutally ignored.

The very foundations of democracy are jeopardized when voters become cynical about the relevance of their vote to express their will through elected officials.

Since he was first elected mayor of Nago four years ago, Toguchi has consistently refused to clarify his position on the Futenma relocation plan. During his campaign, he highlighted that he had provided free school meals, free child care and free medical care for children to support families raising children, calling them his main political achievements. These programs have been funded primarily by state grants to municipalities that host US military installations. Some voters probably decided to vote for Toguchi in order to continue enjoying the benefits, confident that the grassroots project will go ahead no matter what.

Having a mayor who wouldn’t be drawn to his stance on the US base issue, just to make sure the Henoko project wouldn’t become a key election issue, is a product of the ruling camp’s approach. facing the political challenge. The government has emphatically embraced the Henoko plan, and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party coalition and its junior partner, Komeito, have backed its tough policies.

Prospects for construction work on a new airfield off Henoko have become cloudy after the discovery of a wide swath of fragile seabed in the planned reclamation area. The rationale for the Japanese and US governments’ decision to relocate Futenma Air Base was to eliminate the security threat posed by the base’s current location in a densely populated residential area. But that was left in limbo. These grim realities have not stopped the government.

Kishida is committed to pursuing a foreign and security policy that stands up for the people. As this year marks the 50th anniversary of the prefecture’s return to Japan in 1972 after nearly three decades of U.S. rule, the administration should take the opportunity to reflect on Okinawa’s history of suffering and make more aggressive efforts to fundamentally reduce the heavy burden of the heavy US military presence in Okinawa to assuage local concerns.

–The Asahi Shimbun, January 25

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