South Japan vote over US base difficult test for Abe

South Japan vote over US base difficult test for Abe

NAGO, Japan - Okinawa's voters will deliver their verdict Sunday on a decision to press ahead with the long-stalled relocation of a US military base, in an election Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe needs to win.

Opinion polls by local media show a slight lead for anti-base candidate Takeshi Onaga for the role of governor, with incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima - who has the backing of Abe and his party - a close second.

Nakaima stands accused of betraying the semi-tropical island chain after striking a deal with Tokyo last year to greenlight a plan to move the US Marines' Futenma Air Station from a crowded urban area to a sparsely populated coastal district some 50 kilometres (31 miles) to the north.

In what critics said amounted to a bribe, Abe pledged a huge cash injection to the local economy in return for Nakaima reversing years of opposition to the move, which was first mooted in the 1990s.

"Eliminating the danger of the Futenma base (by relocating it from the urban area) is the starting point," Nakaima said in a campaign bulletin this week.

"It is irresponsible to call for the immediate closure and withdrawal of the base, which is not feasible," he said, referring to calls by anti-US base candidates including Onaga.

'Widespread hostility' to US presence

Okinawa is home to more than half of the 47,000 US service personnel stationed in Japan, and strategically key to the US-Japan security alliance at a time of simmering tensions in East Asia.

But there is widespread local hostility to the military presence, with complaints over noise, the risk of accidents and a perception that the presence of so many young servicemen is a source of crime.

The current base sits in a residential district whose inhabitants have never forgotten a 2004 military helicopter crash in the grounds of a local university, and who resent the sound of roaring engines metres from their backyards.

Deadlock on the move to Nago has frustrated the Americans and proved a thorn in the side of successive Japanese governments.

Opinion polls give the electoral edge to Onaga, 64, a former mayor of Okinawa's capital Naha City. He is the strongest of three candidates opposing the relocation plan, although all have slightly different stances on it.

The Ryukyu Shimpo and the Okinawa Times regional newspapers, which carried out the polls, note half of voters say the base move is a key issue.

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