Official campaigning for the Okinawa gubernatorial election began on Sept. 13 with two leading candidates locked in a fierce political battle to succeed Takeshi Onaga, who died on Aug. 8.

The race is shaping up as a one-on-one fight between Atsushi Sakima, a former mayor of Ginowan who is wholeheartedly backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, and Denny Tamaki, a former Lower House lawmaker supported by the “All Okinawa” movement. The movement is a broad coalition of political parties that united in supporting Onaga in his campaign against the central government’s plan to build a new U.S. military base in the Henoko district of Nago in the prefecture.

Unlike a referendum, a directive on a specific issue or proposal, an election concerns a wide range of issues.

There is a long list of issues that should be addressed during the gubernatorial race in Okinawa, ranging from measures to upgrade the local economy, which is lagging behind the mainland’s economy in many ways, to steps to enhance the local welfare and education programs and promote remote island communities.

One indisputable fact, however, is that the outcome of the election, to be held on Sept. 30, will have a crucial impact on the fate of the government’s plan to build a new air base to replace the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, a crowded city in the prefecture.

That is why a growing posse of senior administration officials are traveling to Okinawa to garner votes for Sakima.

Tamaki has clearly expressed his opposition to the Henoko base plan. But Sakima is waffling on the issue. With regard to the prefectural government’s decision to retract permission to reclaim land off Henoko to build the new base given by Onaga’s predecessor, the former Ginowan mayor has only said he will “closely watch the course of events.”

The two candidates talked past each other over the issue during their debate before the start of the campaign.

The situation is reminiscent of the Nago mayoral election held in February. The administration-backed candidate, Taketoyo Toguchi, who challenged the re-election of the incumbent vehemently opposed to the base plan, was elected despite failing to clarify his position on the issue.

Toguchi’s campaign was criticized for deliberately obscuring the Henoko base issue.

An election campaign strategy designed to dodge such a hot-button issue may work.

The All-Okinawa camp, a hodgepodge of groups with widely different political views and positions, is also avoiding certain issues to maintain unity among its members.

But the Henoko base issue is critically different from others in that it has broad and important implications that go well beyond the construction of the base itself.

It raises such vital questions as the essential nature of local autonomy as defined by the Constitution and the relationship the central government should build with local governments. Another vital question is what the mainland can and should do to ease the taxing burden of the heavy U.S. military presence borne by Okinawa, which has a long history of suffering.

The governor has many powers related to the construction of the base and will play a pivotal role in setting the future course for the prefecture.

The candidates have a duty to make clear their views and positions concerning the Henoko issue, which is attracting nationwide attention and will affect the future of the entire nation as well.

The election in the southernmost prefecture is another reminder of the evil effects of the Abe administration’s approach to this issue. By forging ahead with the base plan, flying in the face of clearly expressed strong opposition among residents in the prefecture, while supporting the political forces that act in line with its agenda with generous economic policy budgeting and other political gifts, the administration has created a bitter and deep division within Okinawa.

The administration’s behavior will also face the verdict by voters in the prefecture.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 14