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Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006
Okinawa economic woes trump base ills for voters
NAHA, Okinawa Pref. -- Noted U.S. pundit James Carville, one of the architects of Bill Clinton's victory over George H.W. Bush in the 1992 U.S. presidential election, became famous for coining the political slogan "it's the economy, stupid."
Hirokazu Nakaima's victory in Sunday's Okinawa gubernatorial election showed he and his supporters understood Carville's meaning. For whatever concerns local voters may have of U.S. bases in their backyard, the election showed the majority want a governor who can use his ruling party connections to secure both traditional pork-barrel projects and new, innovative businesses for the local economy.
Final results showed that Nakaima, who was backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, won 347,303 votes. Former Upper House member Keiko Itokazu, who had the backing of eight major opposition parties, won 309,985 votes.
The election was closely watched not only in Okinawa but also in Tokyo and Washington, where it was seen as a referendum on last May's bilateral base realignment agreement.
While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and central government, LDP and New Komeito officials heaved a sigh of relief that Nakaima, whom they campaigned heavily for, won, nobody sees his victory as a sign of support for the current plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab in the Henoko district near Nago by 2014.
"Both Nakaima and Itokazu campaigned against the (Schwab) V-shaped runway plan. In other words, nearly 658,000 Okinawan voters voted against the plan. In addition, unlike the election in 2002, where (Keiichi) Inamine won by nearly 170,000 votes, this time the margin of victory for Nakaima and the conservatives was only 37,000 votes, which suggests the base issue is more important now than in the last election," said associate professor Robert Eldridge of the Osaka School of International Public Policy.
Like the tough negotiator and back-room player his admirers and critics claim he is, Nakaima kept his cards close to his vest when it came to explaining how he will handle negotiations with the central government over Futenma.
While he did say after his victory Sunday that he wants to see movement on the relocation within the next three years, he refused during the campaign to answer questions on what specific changes to the plan he might demand from Tokyo before giving his approval.
Instead, Nakaima, former head of the Okinawa Chamber of Commerce and Industry, campaigned by emphasizing his deep connections in the Okinawan business community and the Tokyo politicians and bureaucrats who determine how much national funding the prefecture gets for public works projects.
At campaign stops throughout the prefecture, Nakaima spoke about the importance of reducing Okinawa's unemployment rate, of developing local industries like ethanol fuel production from sugar cane, and of turning the prefecture into a major center for information technology.
"The future of Okinawa is creating new businesses that employ Okinawans, so they do not have to leave the prefecture and look for work elsewhere. Without such new businesses, Okinawa has no future," he said at a rally on the eve of the election.
It was a smart move. Local media polls in the weeks leading up to the election had shown that reviving Okinawa's economy was the top concern of voters, followed closely by the base issue.
Itokazu, by contrast, campaigned mainly on the base issue, saying she wanted the Futenma replacement facility to be moved outside Okinawa. She spent comparatively little time addressing bread-and-butter economic concerns, although she did propose the creation of 20,000 new jobs in the construction sector by cleaning up the prefecture's beaches. She also pitched the need to enhance the tourism industry.
Although Itokazu said she lost because she started late and didn't have time to run a proper campaign, some blamed her failure on her overreliance on the base issue and economic schemes that, however idealistic, failed to convince voters of their practicality.
"The antibase activists who advised Itokazu seemed unable or unwilling to address, in detail, concerns about the long-term economic health of Okinawa. I think Itokazu would have done better had she offered an economic plan that really addressed the concerns of nonaligned voters," said Masami Nakade, a Naha office worker who said she voted for Itokazu.
Over the next four years, Nakaima will have to figure out how to make good on his grand economic promises while at the same time negotiate with the central government on possible changes to the Futenma relocation.
Abe has already promised to listen to local voices, but that's a speech Okinawans have heard many times before. Still, the central government now has a window of opportunity.