NAHA -- The race to decide the next mayor of Okinawa's capital comes down to a head-to-head showdown between a former prefectural assembly member supported by the All Okinawa group and Naha's former deputy mayor backed by the national ruling coalition.
Campaigning to become Naha mayor formally kicked off Sunday for the election scheduled to take place Oct. 23.
Filing their candidacies as independents were former Okinawa prefectural assembly member Takeharu Onaga, 35, and former Naha Deputy Mayor Satoru Chinen, 59. Either would become mayor for the first time.
Onaga is the second son of late Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga. He is backed by Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki and the All Okinawa group, a united front encompassing conservative and reformist political elements in Okinawa Prefecture.
Chinen is not only supported by the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito, but also the current Naha mayor, who has been supported by the All Okinawa group. The election campaign is shaping up into a rare battle in which divisions are visible in the All Okinawa group.
Causing a stir
"I have served as the deputy mayor placing priority on the people in this city," Chinen said in his first campaign remarks. "I'm ready for action."
He will likely present mainly economic measures in his attempt to earn support from voters. Chinen is not expected, however, to comment on the issue of the plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in the city of Ginowan to the Henoko coastal area of the city of Nago.
Chinen is a former aide of the elder Onaga, who had led the movement opposing the relocation plan. The elder Onaga had become an iconic figure of the All Okinawa group since he was first elected governor in 2014, but before that time he was mayor of Naha for 14 years. He was elected mayor four times with the support of the LDP and Komeito and had appointed Chinen to key posts in the Naha government.
These days, Chinen has kept his distance from the All Okinawa group.
On Wednesday, Naha Mayor Mikiko Shiroma announced her support for Chinen, causing a stir. Shiroma succeeded the elder Onaga when he stepped down to successfully run for governor. During her election campaigns for mayor, Shiroma was supported by All Okinawa and she was widely viewed as supporting Takeharu Onaga.
In recent years, conservative elements have continued to leave the All Okinawa group, making the emphasis on reformist elements more conspicuous.
"The All Okinawa group has to be rebuilt," Shiroma told reporters after a rally to kick off Chinen's campaign. One of the factors for Shiroma to support Chinen is believed to have been an approach from former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of the LDP, with whom she has friendly relations.
Shiroma still maintains her stance of opposing the relocation of the Futenma air base, explicitly saying, "I will not appear alongside LDP members during the campaign."
Supporters and aides of Shiroma and people related to the LDP and Komeito opened their own campaign offices for Chinen and held separate kick off rallies.
"It is not certain how this situation will affect conservative voters," said a senior member of Chinen's campaign office.
The Onaga camp is trying hard to maintain the unity of the All Okinawa group. Onaga has prominently said he is inheriting his father's views for his campaign.
"[Chinen] cannot present his case about the Henoko plan," Onaga sternly said in his first campaign remarks. "This is fatal for a politician in Okinawa."
Onaga made his remarks in a shopping arcade where his grandmother once had a shop and his mother joined the rally.
Recognition of the Onaga name is strong as the elder Onaga had served so long in Naha, both as mayor and governor. Onaga's aides emphasize that he is the "legitimate successor."
Onaga's strongest supporter is Tamaki, who was reelected governor in September with backing from the All Okinawa group. The governor assumed the role as chief of Onaga's campaign headquarters. This is his first time leading a mayoral candidate's campaign.
"Each one of us has to do our best," Tamaki urged Onaga's campaign staffers. "We can't lose this election."
Separately, a senior member of Onaga's campaign office said, "We have to raise our sense of urgency after Shiroma's betrayal."
Since Gov. Onaga's time, the city of Naha has been a strong base for the All Okinawa group. In the September gubernatorial election, Tamaki garnered in Naha about 25,000 votes more than the candidate supported by the LDP and Komeito.
The LDP, which this year lost in the House of Councillors election for the Okinawa constituency and the gubernatorial election, seeks to regain strength in the Okinawa capital, which has the largest number of eligible voters in the prefecture, to gain leverage in future elections. The party thus plans to dispatch senior members to campaign for Chinen.
The All Okinawa group also is determined to keep its strength in the prefectural capital, and Onaga enjoys a strong campaign team on par with that for a gubernatorial election. All Okinawa-related members of municipal assemblies and the prefectural assembly having joined the Onaga campaign team.
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