Exit polls: Okinawa voters reject US base relocation plan in referendum

Official results are expected late Sunday or on Monday. (AFP pic)

TOKYO: A majority of voters in a referendum on Okinawa on Sunday opposed a plan to relocate a US military base within the southern Japanese island, Kyodo news agency said, but the central government was likely to forge ahead with construction.

Based on exit polls, more than half voted against relocating the US Marines’ Futenma air base within Okinawa, Kyodo reported.

Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki was elected on that platform last September.

Okinawa is host to the bulk of US military forces in Japan, whose alliance with Washington is central to its security. Many Okinawa residents associate the bases with crime, pollution and accidents.

Voters had three options, “opposed”, “in favour” and “neither”. Kyodo said the “opposed” votes were certain to exceed 25% of eligible voters when all the ballots were counted. Official results are expected late Sunday or on Monday.

The governor is required to respect the outcome and notify the premier and US president if the top response is backed by 25% of eligible voters, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has said it will go ahead with the plan.

Tokyo’s central government and Okinawa authorities have long been at loggerheads over the plan to move the air base.

A US-Japan agreement calls for moving the base, which is surrounded by schools, hospitals and shops, to a less populated area, called Henoko, on the northern part of Okinawa.

But many Okinawa residents, indignant at what they see as an unfair burden, want the base off the island altogether.

The referendum result is unlikely to derail the central government’s stance, said former Chuo University professor Steven Reed.

“It’s not a matter of local government policy. It’s a matter for foreign policy. The deal has been made,” he said.

But the outcome could give a bit of a boost to the struggling opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) – the largest among Japan’s opposition groups – ahead of an upper house election this year, Reed said.

The CDPJ opposes the Futenma relocation plan.

“It could make a substantial difference in the next election in Okinawa and it could make some difference nationwide,” he said.

Support for the CDPJ was just under 6% in a February survey by public broadcaster NHK, dwarfed by about 37% for Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party.