TOKYO — Voters on the Japanese island of Okinawa were electing their governor Sunday, as Tokyo tries to reconcile the demands of its strained US security alliance with residents who want an American base moved.
Japan and the United States squabbled for much of the past year over the relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, amid hardening opposition on the southern island to the large US military presence there.
The base lies in an urban area of Okinawa, where residents have long complained about aircraft noise and the risk of accidents, and is set to be relocated to a coastal location on the island.
There are two main contenders in Okinawa's gubernatorial election -- incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima, 71, and Yoichi Iha, 58, former mayor of Ginowan city, which currently hosts Futenma.
Turnout as of 2pm (0500 GMT) stood at 24 percent, slightly down from the previous election in 2006. Voting was due to end at 1100 GMT with results expected around four hours later.
Whoever wins will have authority to block any offshore runway construction, potentially putting a major obstacle in the way of the base move -- and both are against the plan, preferring to see the base leave the island altogether.
Initially the government pledged to do exactly that, before performing a U-turn under Washington pressure.
But high tensions in the region following a North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island Tuesday and Tokyo's recent diplomatic spats with Beijing and Moscow highlight Japan's need for US security support, say analysts.
As a result Prime Minister Naoto Kan's government faces a tough task in cultivating an alliance referred to by US President Barack Obama as a security "cornerstone", while not angering voters at home, say analysts.
The issue is yet another headache for a government already under pressure over its handling of a faltering economy and rows with Moscow and Beijing.
The two candidates were neck-and-neck going into the vote, newspaper polls showed, with around 20 percent of the electorate undecided.
Both candidates are independents, but have the backing of opposing parties.
Kan's ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) prefers Nakaima as he is seen as more flexible, but the premier has refrained from officially commenting on the election to avoid further anger among residents.
Nakaima had once approved the relocation plan but changed his mind under growing voter opposition to building a new base on the island after the DPJ-led government reneged on its pledge to move the base off the island altogether.
Iha is a long-term opponent of hosting a US military base, backed by leftist parties such as Social Democrats.
The DPJ swept into power last year under Kan's predecessor Yukio Hatoyama, who advocated more "equal" ties with Washington and closer ties with China.
Hatoyama pledged to scrap a 2006 pact to relocate the base to coastal Henoko, still on Okinawa, and instead promised to move it off the island.
But he eventually backtracked on his pledge in May and stepped down in June, having managed to offend both Okinawans and the United States.
Whatever the election result, it is unlikely to ease Kan's political plight.
He has seen his approval ratings tumble over his handling of the territorial rows with China and Russia, with critics seeing both as having exploited Tokyo's strained ties with Washington over the base issue.
The prime minister has repeatedly promised to respect the base agreement with Washington, and said this month that the US presence in Asia was vital, welcoming its support in the diplomatic rows, which centre on disputed islands.
China's newly assertive posture on territorial issues this year has been a cause for concern in Asia, where Washington is seen as an important counterbalance.
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