The race for Okinawa governor is about to heat up between a left-leaning anti-U.S. base candidate and the incumbent, a moderate business leader.

Yoichi Iha, 58, the mayor of Ginowan since 2003, announced Friday that he will challenge Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima in a November election that could determine the fate of a plan to close Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and move Marine air units to a new air facility in rural northeast Okinawa.

“This election is a deciding landmark for Okinawa’s future,” Iha said during a press conference Friday afternoon. “It is an opportunity for the Okinawan people to express their will through democratic means against the U.S. and Japanese governments, which are forcing an additional military base on Okinawa.”

He said Okinawa has been in limbo for the past 12 years, while the two national governments debated closing the Futenma air base. The base is located in the middle of Ginowan.

“There is no doubt that the Futenma relocation will become the major focal issue,” Iha said of the coming campaign.

He wants the base closed immediately and the Marines moved outside Okinawa. He is supported by the island’s three socialist parties — the Social Democratic Party, the Communist Party and the Social Mass Party — and three major labor unions.

Gov. Nakaima, 71, is expected to formally announce his candidacy early in September. He previously had accepted plans for the new base at Camp Schwab, but since last fall has opposed the location of the project’s runways. He also has objected to the way the national government discarded input from Okinawa when the U.S. and Japan reached the latest agreement on the plan.

Whoever is elected can still hold sway in the Futenma relocation. The governor must approve all land reclamation projects, and the plan for the new Camp Schwab facility calls for runways to extend from the base onto reclaimed land in Oura Bay.

The election is creating strange bedfellows. Nakaima, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, is supported by some leaders of the Democratic Party of Japan, which unseated the LDP last year, ending an almost unbroken 50-year rule. The LDP signed an agreement with the U.S. in 2006 to close Futenma and move the base functions to Camp Schwab after searching 10 years for an alternate site.

The DPJ, meanwhile, promised to move the Marine air units outside Okinawa. But after enduring heavy pressure from the U.S. and being unable to find an alternate site, the government backed down and signed an agreement in May to go ahead with the original plan.

The new national government’s review of the 2006 agreement was a nine-month ordeal that resulted in a renewed anti-base movement on Okinawa that drew 90,000 protesters to an anti-base rally last spring and resolutions from prefectural leaders and mayors opposed to keeping Marine air units on Okinawa.

In June, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned in disgrace, partly because of his failure to move the base outside Okinawa, and the DPJ decided not to run a candidate for Okinawa governor.

Members of the Okinawa branch of the DPJ are torn concerning their party’s stance on the issue, and there’s a third, more radical group looking into backing a third candidate.

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