Okinawa base referendum may deal nationwide electoral blow to Abe
By Satoshi Iizuka
The outcome of a referendum in Okinawa showing that a vast majority of residents oppose a plan to transfer a key U.S. military base within the prefecture may deal a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government in elections across the country this year.
Sunday’s poll, which was legally nonbinding, underscored a gap between the central government and people in Okinawa. If Abe sticks to the controversial plan and continues to ignore the will of the prefecture, it could create a sense of distrust against his administration, political experts say.
More than 70 percent of voters in the southern island prefecture said “no” to a plan to advance landfill work to build a replacement facility for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in a coastal area of Henoko in the city of Nago.
The government has said the relocation is necessary to remove risks concerning the Futenma base, which is located in the crowded residential area of Ginowan.
Naoto Nonaka, a professor of comparative politics at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, said the referendum comes at a time when Abe’s administration is in a “serious situation.” Nonaka believes the Abe government has reached a dead end due to unsuccessful internal and diplomatic policy ventures.
Abe, who will become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in November, is struggling to define his political legacy, including making progress on a first-ever amendment to Japan’s pacifist Constitution and boosting Japan’s economy through his “Abenomics” policy package.
On diplomacy, Abe has stressed that the Japan-U.S. alliance, which he describes as the cornerstone of his country’s diplomacy and security, is “stronger than ever.”
He is trying to strengthen a personal rapport with President Donald Trump. But some analysts say Trump appears to take advantage of Abe’s desire.
Trump has repeatedly urged Abe to boost Japan’s imports from the United States, including expensive military equipment, citing the need to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with Japan under his “America First” agenda.
Abe has recently focused his political resources on negotiations to settle a territorial dispute with Russia and sign a postwar peace treaty. But the prospects for a successful outcome remain murky amid President Vladimir Putin’s unbudging stance.
Nonaka said that Abe may be focused primarily on the survival of his administration.
On Monday, after the referendum, Abe said he “sincerely” accepts the anti-U.S. base sentiment shown in the nonbinding plebiscite and vowed to continue “all-out efforts to alleviate the base-hosting burden” on the people of Okinawa.
But the Japanese government will proceed with the controversial relocation, with Abe saying it “cannot be postponed any further.”
The government has underlined the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance, as compared to the will of Okinawa, and argued the relocation plan is the “only solution” to remove the Futenma base’s dangers without undermining the deterrence provided by the bilateral framework.
“Local people worked hard in the referendum to urge (the central government) to pause and give thought to the issue again,” said Nonaka, adding they are demanding more sufficient explanation.
If the administration continues to ignore the will of the people of Okinawa, demonstrated through the referendum, and advance construction, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is likely to face an uphill battle in a lower house by-election in the No. 3 constituency of Okinawa Prefecture on April 21 to pick the successor to Denny Tamaki, who resigned as a lawmaker to run a successful gubernatorial campaign last September.
Such a tendency could spread beyond Okinawa as this year will see the quadrennial unified local elections in April and the triennial upper house polls in summer.
However, one government source remains bullish, saying, “Although (the outcome) may stir some sympathies for Okinawa, it will not affect the Cabinet’s approval ratings nationwide.”
But some LDP members are concerned the hard-line stance could have a negative impact on the elections, with a middle-ranking lawmaker saying, “I wonder if (the government) could show a more considerate attitude toward Okinawa.”
Etsushi Tanifuji, a political science professor at Waseda University, said the referendum was symbolic of the Abe administration’s tendency to bulldoze its policies through without sufficient explanation and consultation.
As examples of Abe’s high-handed style, the professor cited controversial laws allowing more foreign workers into Japan and authorizing the opening of casino resorts, both enacted last year on the strength of a majority of the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito party in the Diet.
“The referendum could be a turning point for voters across the country to again realize Abe’s politics, hurting the reputation of his administration,” Tanifuji said.
The move may reinforce speculation that Abe might dissolve the House of Representatives for a simultaneous double election at the time of the House of Councillors poll, although the four-year term of the more powerful lower house will last until October 2021.
If his LDP loses its upper house advantage, Abe would miss the chance to amend the supreme law, one of his long-cherished political goals.
Pro-constitutional reform forces currently hold two-thirds majorities in both Diet houses, satisfying the requirement to initiate the process needed for its amendment. The proposal must eventually be approved by a majority in a national referendum.
As the number of lawmakers favoring constitutional revision remains slightly above the threshold in the 242-seat upper house, the LDP needs to maintain as many seats as possible.
In a high-stakes gambit, Abe may call a lower house election to catch opposition parties unprepared, Japanese political watchers say.
Toru Yoshida, a professor of political science at Hokkaido University, said the referendum could set the stage for opposition parties that are against the relocation plan to work together in the upcoming polls.
But he also said it is imperative for opposition parties to present counterproposals over the relocation plan, instead of merely standing against it, if they want to win the trust of the voters.