Okinawa election loss creates political headache for Japan's PM Abe

Mr Susumu Inamine (front, centre), a candidate for mayoral election in Nago, celebrates his victory with supporters on January 19, 2014. Mr Inamine won in a mayoral election on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa which is being closely watched as
Mr Susumu Inamine (front, centre), a candidate for mayoral election in Nago, celebrates his victory with supporters on January 19, 2014. Mr Inamine won in a mayoral election on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa which is being closely watched as a local verdict on the long-stalled and controversial relocation of a US military base. -- PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (Reuters) - The re-election of a city mayor opposed to a plan to relocate a controversial United States air base on Japan's Okinawa island has created a political headache for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and threatens friction with Washington.

Delays in relocating the US Marines' Futenma air base, a move first agreed between Tokyo and Washington in 1996, have long been an irritant in US-Japan ties and Mr Abe is keen to make progress on the project as he seeks tighter ties with the United States in the face of an assertive China.

Mr Abe's ties with Washington suffered after the United States expressed "disappointment" with his Dec 26 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, a pilgrimage that further strained relations with China and South Korea, which see the Tokyo shrine to Japan's war dead as a symbol of the country's past militarism.

Mr Susumu Inamine - a staunch opponent of the relocation plan - was assured re-election as mayor of the Okinawa city of Nago, Kyodo said, citing projections shortly after the polls closed.

An Okinawa newspaper also said Mr Inamine's victory was certain.

Mr Inamine has pledged to use his local authority block the relocation of the functions of Futenma from a populous part of central Okinawa to Nago's coastal Henoko area.

His main opponent had backed the plan and ran with strong support from Mr Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Last month, Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima approved a landfill project to implement the plan.

Futenma has long been a lightening rod for discontent among Okinawa residents, many of whom associate the concentration of US bases with accidents, pollution and crime such as the 1995 rape of a Japanese schoolgirl by three US servicemen.

Seeking to soothe discontent, Mr Abe's government earmarked 348 billion yen (S$4.25 billion) for Okinawa's economic development in the draft budget for the year from April and pledged about 300 billion yen per year through 2021/2022.

Mr Abe also promised to study whether the relocation plan could be speeded up and said the government would start talks with the United States on a deal that could allow for more oversight of environmental issues at US bases.

Political analysts said Mr Inamine's win, while likely to slow progress, might not be a death knell for the relocation plan.

"Mr Inamine says he is totally opposed and may create obstacles, but the Abe government is trying hard to keep its promise to the United States," Mr Seiichi Eto, an LDP lawmaker and aide to Mr Abe, told Reuters late last week.

Analysts say Mr Abe could risk denting voter support for his government, which came to power at the end of 2012 with promises to revive the economy, if he does push ahead with the relocation of the base in the face of local opposition.

"Inamine's victory will give momentum to the anti-base movement and the opposition campaign could spread," Dr Takashi Kawakami, a professor at Takushoku University, said.

"Abe will probably try to forge ahead but there will probably be an opposition movement... and if this is reported in the media daily, Abe's support rates could fall."

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