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Monday, Jan. 23, 2006

ECONOMY ALSO IMPORTANT

Nago election about more than base issue


Staff writer

NAGO, Okinawa Pref. -- Voters went to the polls Sunday to choose a new mayor in an election with implications not only for the city of Nago but also the realignment of U.S. military bases in Japan.

Although most of the media tied the election to the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station to Nago, some voters said Sunday they were more concerned about the local economy.

Among the three candidates -- all members of the Nago Municipal Assembly -- independent Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, the head of the assembly and backed by the liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, appeared to be headed for victory as votes were counted Sunday night.

The other two were Yoshitami Oshiro, a seven-term member, and Munehiro Gakiya, a six-term member.

All three opposed government plans to relocate the Futenma base, although there were differences in how they campaigned on the issue.

In conversations with voters, those who said they voted for Shimabukuro felt that while they don't want a new base in their backyard, they are more concerned about reviving the local economy.

"The Nago economy is really hurting now. Many businesses have closed and it is very difficult for young people to find good jobs. We need a mayor who will make economic revitalization his top priority," said Keiko Higa, 60, the owner of a small drug store.

But some young people who do have jobs said they voted for Gakiya precisely because of the base issue.

"Shimabukuro says he is opposed to the relocation plan, but I don't believe he's serious. When push comes to shove, he'll cave into pressure to drop his opposition in exchange for promises of funding for his, and the LDP's, pet projects. Gakiya, on the other hand, is far more serious about his opposition," said Chieko Yonamine, a 26-year-old restaurant worker.

During the campaign, Shimabukuro indicated that if certain adjustments were made to the current Futenma relocation plan, he might be willing to drop his opposition to the idea of a new base off Henoko.

Undecided voters and those who said they were not going to the polls said they doubt the election will have much effect either on the base issue or the economy.

"The central government and the U.S. have ultimate control over the base issue, and just pumping central and prefectural funds into Nago does not mean the economy will get better. What, really, can the mayor of Nago do?" asked Tetsuya Araiki, 45, a local bank employee.



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