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Tokyo (AFP) – Japanese officials in Okinawa on Friday approved the long-stalled relocation of a controversial U.S. military base, a breakthrough that could remove a running sore in relations between Tokyo and Washington.

More than 17 years after the two allies agreed to move the U.S. Marines’ Futenma Air Station from a densely populated urban area, the local government has finally consented to a landfill that will enable new facilities to be built on the coast.

The agreement will burnish the credentials of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the U.S., possibly taking some of the sting out of American criticism of his provocative visit Thursday to a war shrine seen by China and Korea as a symbol of Japanese militarism.

The issue has been deadlocked for years, with huge opposition to any new base among Okinawans fed up with playing host to an outsized share of the U.S. military presence in Japan, and who want it moved off the island altogether.

Okinawa’s governor Hirokazu Nakaima, long a thorn in the central government’s side, this week met Abe, who pledged a big cash injection into the island’s economy every year until 2021.

He emerged from the meeting declaring himself impressed with the package on offer, which includes a pledge to work towards the shuttering of Futenma within five years, and on Friday gave it his formal seal of approval.

“The imminent issue for us on Okinawa is to remove the dangerous airbase from the heart of the town as soon as possible,” Nakaima told reporters.

“The prime minister is saying the government will work towards halting the Futenma operation within five years.”

Abe praised Nakaima for making a “courageous decision”, while Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said the government “will do its utmost to relocate the base to Camp Schwab as quickly as possible”.

But the news provoked anger in Okinawa, where thousands of protesters surrounded the local government office, media reports said, with footage showing demonstrators holding banners reading: “Never bend”.

Several hundred had stormed the lobby of the building and were staging a sit-in protest, a government spokeswoman said.

The deal gives the go-ahead for landfill near Camp Schwab on the east of the island, one of a number of large tracts of land the U.S. military uses. Two runways will be built atop the landfill.

Environmentalists say any development risks seriously damaging the coral reefs in the area as well as the delicate habitat of the dugong, a rare sea mammal.

Nakaima had been a bitter critic of the central government, which he says is unsympathetic to the southern tropical island and still treats it as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” of the U.S. military, more than 40 years after it was handed back to Japan.

But at Wednesday’s meeting, the carrot of Abe’s stimulus pledge — at least 300 billion yen ($2.9 billion) every year until fiscal 2021 — proved persuasive for the governor of Japan’s poorest prefecture.

The U.S. agreed to shut Futenma in 1996 partly in response to soaring anti-base feeling after the gang-rape the year before of a 12-year-old girl by three servicemen.

Its position in the middle of a built-up area also makes it less than ideal for the frequent flights by military aircraft.

However, resistance from local communities to any new site left the base in limbo, with Washington’s hopes for a resolution regularly frustrated by weak government in Tokyo.

Relations between the two capitals dropped precipitously after the 2009 election of prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, partly on a promise that he would turf the base out of Okinawa, much to the irritation of Washington policymakers.

His subsequent flip-flop left Okinawans furious and feeling betrayed, and cast a further cloud over the issue.

The deal Abe appears to have struck marks a significant achievement, and one that is expected to smooth relations after years of frustration.

Observers have pointed to the timing and Abe’s controversial visit Thursday to the Yasukuni war shrine, seen as a symbol in northeast Asia of 20th century Japan’s brutal imperialism, and said his negotiating methods owed more to his fondness for splurging money.

“Abe flashed big cash around to get the nod from the governor, which saved him some face in Washington,” said Tetsuro Kato, professor emeritus at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University.

AFP Photo/Toshifumi Kitamura

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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