Residents of the Japanese island of Okinawa will go to polls on Sunday in an election that will determine the fate of the long-stalled relocation of a US military base there.
Opinion polls show anti-base candidate Takeshi Onaga is slightly ahead of the incumbent governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, who has the backing of the ruling party.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe needs Nakaima to gain a victory in the election to continue works on the relocation of the base.
Nakaima has came under criticism since last year when he signed a deal allowing the government to move the US Marines’ Futenma Air Station from a crowded urban area in the island to a sparsely populated coastal district some 50 km (31 miles) to the north.
The decision came after 17 years of protests against the base, which stations around 26,000 US troops.
Reports say the central government has vowed to aid the Okinawa economy financially in return for Nakaima reversing years of opposition to the move.
“Eliminating the danger of the Futenma base (by relocating it from the urban area) is the starting point,” Nakaima said in a campaign statement this week.
“It is irresponsible to call for the immediate closure and withdrawal of the base, which is not feasible,” he said, referring to calls by anti-US base candidates including Onaga.
The victory of Onaga would deal a major blow to the central government because the governor has the power to veto the project for construction of the new base.
The US has had a major military presence in Okinawa since the end of World War II. About half of the 50,000 American military personnel in Japan are stationed on the island.
The relocation plan is part of an agreement to move 9,000 Marines off Okinawa, including transferring 5,000 to Guam.
The deadlock over the base has been a major source of tension between Tokyo and Washington since 1996 when the two governments agreed on the original plan to move the base.
According to the relocation plans, the Futenma air base would be moved
from Ginowan city to the thinly populated Henoko district in Nago, due to concerns over high levels of aircraft noise, accidents in civilian areas and rampant crimes, such as rape, by the US soldiers stationed at the base.
Local opposition to the US bases have flared into mass protests against the presence of American forces in the country