By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - The candidate backed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government will win the Okinawa city mayor's race, handing Tokyo a key victory that could help smooth the long-planned move of an unpopular U.S. airbase.
Defeat would have boosted resistance to moving the Futenma base to the less populated Henoko area of the island, as agreed with the United States two decades ago.
The close U.S.-Japanese relationship has gained in significance as a result of China's increasing assertiveness in the region and an unpredictable North Korea.
Public broadcaster NHK said incumbent Ginowan mayor Atsushi Sakima was certain to win the election based on early returns from the balloting.
Abe's government had dangled prospects of a bigger budget for Okinawa, backing for a Disney resort and promises of aid for impoverished children in one of Japan's poorest prefectures to boost Sakima's chances.
The opposition candidate, like the governor of Okinawa prefecture and many of its voters, wanted the base off the island altogether. Okinawa was the site of Japan's only land battles in World War Two and many there resent hosting the majority of U.S. troops in Japan.
Sakima, a popular former athlete and veteran mayor, played up his ties to Abe's government, which said in December it would boost Okinawa's budget by 1 billion yen ($8.5 million) to 335 billion for the coming fiscal year, after cutting it last year in reaction to the election of anti-base governor Takeshi Onaga.
Tokyo also backed plans for a resort on the vacated base site, which may have helped to sway voters in Okinawa where unemployment runs sharply higher than elsewhere in Japan.
"(Sakima) focused very specifically on the Ginowan rewards and his connection to the central government," said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japanese Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Clearly the central government can offer more payoffs than the governor's office."
Sakima's victory gives Abe a boost after a string of election losses in Okinawa for government-backed candidates. While hurdles to the base move remain, the victory removes one obstacle that could have become an irritant in Japan's relations with its closest military ally.
The win also strengthens Abe's hand six months ahead of an election for parliament's upper house and as a close ally, Economy Minister Akira Amari, is under fire over a media report about a funding scandal.
(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Jon Boyle)