Okinawa base referendum may deal nationwide electoral blow to Abe

The outcome of a referendum in Okinawa showing that a vast majority of locals oppose a plan to transfer a key U.S. military base within the prefecture may deal a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government at elections across the country this year.
More than 70 percent of voters in the southern island prefecture voted "no" on Sunday to a plan to proceed with landfill work to build a replacement facility for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in a coastal district of Henoko. The transfer will mean related military activities will no longer be undertaken in the crowded residential area of Ginowan, shifting to the city of Nago instead.
Naoto Nonaka, a professor of comparative politics at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, said the referendum comes at a time when Abe's administration is in "a serious situation." Nonaka believes the Abe government has reached a dead end due to unsuccessful internal and diplomatic policy ventures.
Abe, who will become Japan's longest-serving prime minister in November, is struggling to define his political legacies, including making progress on a first-ever amendment to Japan's pacifist Constitution and boosting Japan's economy through his "Abenomics" policy package.
On diplomacy, he has recently focused his political resources on negotiations to settle a territorial dispute with Russian and sign a postwar peace treaty. But the prospects for a successful outcome remain murky amid President Vladimir Putin's unbudging stance.
Nonaka pointed out Abe may be focused primarily on the survival of his administration.
On Monday, after the referendum, Abe said that he "sincerely" accepts the anti-U.S. base sentiment shown in the nonbinding plebiscite and vowed to continue "all-out efforts to alleviate the base-hosting burden" on the people of Okinawa.
But the Japanese government will proceed with the controversial relocation, with Abe saying it "cannot be postponed any further."
The government has underlined the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance, as compared to the will of Okinawa, and argued the relocation plan is "the only solution" to remove the dangers of the Futenma base without undermining the deterrence provided by the bilateral framework.
"Local people worked hard in the referendum to urge (the central government) to pause and give thought to the issue again," said Nonaka, adding they are demanding more sufficient explanation.
If the administration continues to ignore the will of the Okinawan people, demonstrated through the referendum, and advance construction, Abe's Liberal Democratic Party is likely to face an uphill battle in a lower house by-election in the No. 3 constituency of Okinawa Prefecture on April 21 to pick the successor to Denny Tamaki, who resigned as a lawmaker to run a successful gubernatorial campaign last September.
Such a tendency could spread beyond Okinawa as this year will see the quadrennial unified local elections in April and the triennial upper house polls in summer.
However, one government source remains bullish, saying, "Although (the outcome) may stir some sympathies for Okinawa, it will not affect the Cabinet's approval ratings nationwide."
But some LDP members are concerned the hardline stance could have a negative impact on the elections, with a middle-ranking lawmaker saying, "I wonder if (the government) could show a more considerate attitude towards Okinawa, at least a little more."
Etsushi Tanifuji, a political science professor at Waseda University, said the referendum was symbolic of the Abe administration's tendency to bulldoze its policies through without sufficient explanation and consultation.
As examples of Abe's high-handed style, the professor cited controversial laws allowing more foreign workers into Japan and authorizing the opening of casino resorts, both enacted last year by a majority of the LDP and its coalition partner party Komeito in the Diet.
"The referendum could be a turning point for voters across the country to realize again Abe's politics, hurting the reputation of his administration," Tanifuji said.
The move may reinforce speculation that Abe would dissolve the House of Representatives for a simultaneous double election at the time of the House of Councillors poll, although the four-year term of the more powerful lower house will last until October 2021.
If his LDP loses its upper house advantage, Abe would miss the chance to amend the supreme law, one of his long-cherished political goals.
Pro-constitutional reform forces currently control two-thirds majorities in both Diet houses, satisfying the requirement to initiate the process needed for its amendment. The proposal must eventually be approved by a majority in a national referendum.
As the number of the pro-constitution revision lawmakers remains slightly above the threshold in the 242-seat upper house, the LDP needs to maintain as many seats as possible.
In a high-stakes gambit, Abe may call a lower house election to catch opposition parties unprepared, Japanese political watchers say.
Toru Yoshida, a professor of political science at Hokkaido University, said the referendum could set the stage for opposition parties opposed to the relocation plan to work together in the upcoming polls.
But he also noted that it is imperative for opposition parties to present any counter-proposals over the relocation plan, instead of merely opposing it, if they want to win the trust of the voters.

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