Election defeat in Okinawa clouds LDP’s ambitions in gubernatorial contest

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Liberal Democratic Party House of Councillors candidate Genta Koja bows to supporters after loosing the election on July 11 in Naha.

The defeat of a Liberal Democratic Party House of Councillors candidate in the Okinawa constituency earlier this month has cast a shadow over the ruling party, as the result had been viewed as a prelude to the autumn gubernatorial race in the prefecture.

In the July 10 upper house election, incumbent Yoichi Iha defeated the LDP candidate Genta Koja by a narrow margin of 2,888 votes.

Iha was backed by both conservative and left-wing forces in a political bloc known as All Okinawa, of which Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki is a member.

The defeat in Okinawa has prompted the LDP to work on a new strategy for the gubernatorial election, for which campaigning officially starts on Aug. 25 with polling day on Sept. 11.

The LDP’s Okinawa prefectural chapter launched preparations for the gubernatorial race at a meeting of its executives on July 15, during which they assessed the upper house election result and reaffirmed their intention to back Atsushi Sakima, a former mayor of Ginowan in the prefecture.

The chapter plans to present its request for official support to party headquarters in Tokyo in the near future.

Of the four mayoral elections held in Okinawa Prefecture from January to April, LDP-backed candidates won them all.

The LDP had hoped to win a seat in the Okinawa constituency in the upper house race, and then face the gubernatorial election with the wind in its sails, but the LDP’s momentum has been damped by the defeat of Koja, who was supported by Sakima on the campaign trail.

Even when LDP-backed candidates have won mayoral and local elections in the prefecture in recent years, All Okinawa-backed candidates have often come out on top in prefecture-wide gubernatorial and national polls.

Nevertheless, Sakima is upbeat. “I think each election is different. I’d like to do my best,” said the former Ginowan mayor, who was defeated by Tamaki by a margin of about 80,000 votes in the gubernatorial election four years ago.

There is a growing sense of urgency in the LDP chapter, whose members think Tamaki’s advantageous position as an incumbent will mean a tougher contest in the gubernatorial race, compared to the upper house election.

The fact that former LDP lower house lawmaker Mikio Shimoji has also announced his intention to run is another cause of concern for the ruling party.

The party expects Shimoji to secure a share of the conservative votes, based on the strong turnout in the upper house election for the right-wing Sanseito party, which got about 22,000 votes in the prefecture.

According to the LDP’s analysis, Koja put up a good fight in Naha, which has many independent voters, but suffered in other parts of the prefecture.

Sakima is likely to follow the party line on the plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Ginowan to the Henoko area in Nago in the prefecture, and is expected to focus his campaign on economic development while touting his connections with the central government and ruling parties.

The All Okinawa camp also feels a sense of urgency regarding the upper house election result.

The movement initially rallied both conservative and left-wing forces, but a growing number of right-wing members in the informal group have been distancing themselves amid protracted conflicts with the central government.

The chairman of a major company in the prefecture, who had been a leading figure in the All Okinawa movement and led a group of Tamaki supporters, got behind the LDP-backed candidate in the upper house election.

Iha lost more than 80,000 votes in the latest election, compared to the upper house poll six years ago.

“We’ll take a good look at the [election] result and prepare ourselves for the upcoming gubernatorial race,” Tamaki said.

Some All Okinawa backers have said the group must also promote economic policies that appeal to independent voters, as well as its signature policy of opposing the Futenma air base relocation plan.