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TOKYO (AP) – Japanese voters delivered another blow to a stalled agreement to relocate a key American military base on Okinawa by electing a mayor on Sunday who campaigned on a promise to oppose the project.
The vote in the Okinawa city of Nago increases pressure on Japan’s left-leaning government to mothball an agreement with the U.S. about the base – risking a rift between the allies at a time of rising Asia security concerns from North Korea’s nuclear program and China’s rising military strength.
Residents of Nago chose challenger Susumu Inamine – who campaigned against any expansion of U.S. military presence in the area – over incumbent Yoshikazu Shimabukuro.
Nago is where Washington and Tokyo agreed in 2006 to move the Futenma U.S. Marine airfield from a more crowded part of the southern Japanese island.
After securing victory, Inamine celebrated with jubilant supporters gathered at his office.
“I fought this campaign vowing to resist the base,” he said. “I intend to keep that promise as we move forward.”
While the city mayor has little power to decide national policy, the vote could prove pivotal in Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s upcoming decision on whether to implement the relocation pact.
The deal was part of a broader realignment of American troops forged after a helicopter from the base crashed into a university near Futenma. More than half of some 47,000 American troops stationed in Japan are in Okinawa, where many residents complain about noise, pollution and crime linked to the bases.
The Futenma facility, home to about 2,000 Marines, is one of the corps’ largest facilities in the Pacific. The United States insists the base must stay somewhere in Okinawa so that the Marine units remain cohesive. But some Japanese politicians have suggested moving the facility off the island altogether, or even out of the country.
Japan’s new government – led by a party that was in the opposition when the relocation deal was inked – is now reconsidering that agreement, an about-face that has strained ties between the two allies.
Hatoyama has postponed a decision on Futenma until May, and Sunday’s election was seen as a litmus test of local sentiment.
Nago’s 60,000 residents are increasingly opposed to hosting a new base, which would likely require bulldozing beaches near an existing Marine facility in the area about 900 miles (1450 kilometers) from Tokyo. The issue sparked intense protests and dominated debate between the two mayoral candidates. Shimabukuro, the outgoing mayor, supported the base for the jobs and investment it would bring.
Turnout was high, with nearly 77 percent of the city’s 45,000 registered voters casting ballots. Inamine won with 52.3 percent of the vote, according to the city’s election office.
Inamine, an independent, ran with the support of Hatoyama’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan. His victory Sunday will make it increasingly difficult for the prime minister to resist pressure to shelve the deal, ruling party lawmaker Hideo Hiraoka said.
“The option to bring forward the (relocation) plan in line with the bilateral accord will almost disappear,” Hiraoka told Kyodo News agency.
The Obama administration has already expressed frustrations with Tokyo’s delays in finalizing the relocation of the Futenma base – now in the larger Okinawa city of Ginowan with 92,000 people. – saying it is delaying a sweeping realignment plan for U.S. military in the region.
Part of that plan involves moving about 8,000 Marines and their families from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam by 2014, but the American military says that plan cannot move forward until Futenma’s replacement facility is complete.
Still, it is unclear what steps Washington could take if Japan’s government puts public pressure in Okinawa over its commitments to its ally.
Under a security pact signed in 1960, U.S. armed forces are allowed broad use of Japanese land and facilities. In return, the U.S. is obliged to respond to attacks on Japan and protect the country under its nuclear umbrella.
Any tension between the allies could distract efforts to present a united front as North Korea defies attempts to shut down its nuclear weapons program and China continues to poor money into building up its own vast military.
The outcome of the Nago election, however, puts the Japanese government in an uncomfortable position. Mikio Shimoji, policy chief of the People’s New Party, told Kyodo that the outcome of Sunday’s election shows that the four-year-old plan to move the base to Nago should be renegotiated despite Washington’s dismay.
I think we should compile a new proposal in consideration of this popular will,” Shimoji said.
“I expect the United States to respect the people’s will of the friendly nation,” he added.