Campaigning kicked off Sunday for the Jan. 19 mayoral election in Nago, Okinawa, with the incumbent, who opposes the hosting of a new U.S. military facility, challenged by a pro-base candidate.
The outcome of the race between Susumu Inamine, the 68-year-old incumbent who is seeking a second four-year term, and Bunshin Suematsu, a 65-year-old former Okinawa prefectural assembly member, is expected to affect the Japan-U.S. plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to a coastal area in less densely populated Nago, both in Okinawa.
The election follows Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima's approval late last month of landfill work to build the facility in Nago.
The election is also likely to decide the fate of Nakaima, after the prefectural assembly recently adopted a resolution urging the governor to quit for reneging on his election pledge to have the U.S. base moved outside the southernmost island prefecture hosting a bulk of U.S. military facilities.
Inamine is recommended by the Japanese Communist Party, the People's Life Party and the Social Democratic Party, while Suematsu is recommended by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
"I will not allow the construction of the base either on land or sea in the Henoko area," Inamine said.
In 1996, Tokyo and Washington agreed on the return of the land used for the Futenma base within five to seven years in a bid to reduce the burden on Okinawa. In 2006, the two countries agreed on a deal to build a replacement facility for Futenma by reclaiming land in Nago's Henoko area.
Suematsu said, "I want to settle the issue by cooperating with Gov. Nakaima and the central government."
While the central government expects it will be able to proceed with the landfill work regardless of the election outcome, having secured the governor's approval, the work could be delayed if Inamine wins.
Inamine has said he will use the powers of the mayor to resist the base relocation to Nago if secures re-election.
The central government will need the city's permission to use a nearby port and roads for the landfill work. The government will need to seek court approval for the use of such local infrastructure if the city refuses to allow it.
The ballots will be counted immediately after voting. Nago had 46,665 eligible voters as of Saturday.