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A Conservative Victory in Ginowan

Futenma LinkSNA (Tokyo) — In the closely watched mayoral election in Ginowan city, which hosts the controversial US Marines Futenma Air Base, conservative incumbent Atsushi Sakima won reelection to a second term. Mayor Sakima faced a stiff challenge from Keiichiro Shimura, who had the backing of Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga and the “All Okinawa” forces opposing construction of the US Marines airbase at Henoko beach.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly celebrated Sakima’s win as a “big victory” for the central government’s position in the Henoko dispute, and the stony face of Governor Onaga sitting in the losing Shimura headquarters on election night confirmed that it wasn’t a good evening for the anti-base position that he has championed.

But was it truly a victory for the conservative forces? No and yes.

On the “no” side of the ledger, exit polls showed clearly that 56% of the Ginowan voters oppose the Henoko airbase construction and only 33% approve. What that signifies, of course, is that there were other issues in these local elections that had a major impact on the results. It was not simply a one issue election about the Henoko plan, even if that was the focus of its prefectural and national significance.

Related to that, Mayor Sakima had the advantage of incumbency; several years to consolidate his support among local interest groups. When an incumbent goes for reelection, there is always an element of it being a verdict regarding his or her performance over the last term.

Finally, Ginowan has an unique position as the current host of Futenma Air Base. For those voters whose loyalty is to the local community rather than to Okinawa more broadly, there is a strong incentive to go along with the central government plan, as that is more likely to result in an earlier departure of the US Marines from Ginowan. It may not be such a good thing for Okinawa as a whole, but the local residents of Ginowan are likely to see more tangible and immediate benefits by cooperating with Abe rather than Onaga. That puts them in an uniquely ambiguous position.

And yet, even if the Ginowan mayoral elections were “not really” a genuine verdict on the Henoko construction plan, the US and Japanese central governments, aided by a compliant media and a largely indifferent general public, are likely to gain some traction in creating the false perception that Sakima’s victory was a signal that the Okinawan are not really behind Governor Onaga’s anti-base policy position. In politics it is often the case that actual facts are less important than what you can make people believe.

This will add urgency for Governor Onaga to respond in some way that highlights the reality of Okinawan public opinion, such as going through with the idea of holding a prefecture-wide popular referendum on Henoko base construction.

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