Takeshi Onaga, Nov. 16, 2014
Takeshi Onaga, right, hugs his daughter as they celebrate his victory in the Okinawa gubernatorial election in Naha on the Japanese southern island of Okinawa in this photograph taken by Kyodo news agency Nov. 16, 2014. Reuters/Kyodo

(Reuters) -- A candidate backed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party was soundly defeated in a key local election Sunday, a blow to plans to relocate a controversial U.S. air base on Okinawa island, home to the bulk of U.S. military forces in Japan. Delays in relocating the U.S. Marines’ Futenma air base have long been an irritant in U.S.-Japan relations. Abe is keen to make progress on the project as he seeks tighter security ties with Washington in the face of an assertive China.

The Kyodo news agency said after the polls closed that its projections showed a former mayor, Takeshi Onaga, was certain to defeat incumbent Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima. The incumbent, who ran with the backing of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, had approved a U.S.-Japan plan to relocate Futenma to a less populous part of the island.

Onaga, a conservative who once supported the base move to coastal northern Okinawa, later changed his mind to say he wanted it out of the prefecture. His platform was also critical of other Abe policies, such as the use of nuclear power.

Describing his victory as “a new page in history,” Onaga told reporters: “I am determined to work toward canceling and withdrawing it [the relocation plan],” Kyodo reported.

Abe’s government has insisted the plan will go ahead regardless of the outcome of the local election, but the results add new uncertainty to the outlook for the long-stalled project.

When Nakaima approved the plan last year, Washington welcomed it as an important step in efforts to bolster U.S.-Japan ties and rebalance Washington’s foreign policy toward Asia.

Tokyo and Washington first agreed to relocate Futenma to another site on the island in 1996, but the plan has stalled in the face of opposition by many residents, who associate the U.S. base with noise pollution, crime and accidents. Opponents want the U.S. military to leave Okinawa altogether.

Accounting for less than 1 percent of Japan’s landmass, the southern island hosts more than one-half of the 47,000 U.S. service personnel stationed in the country. Futenma, located in a densely populated area, has been a lightning rod for local opposition.

Nakaima’s loss is a headache for Abe, but was unlikely to affect his expected decision to postpone an unpopular sales-tax hike and call a snap election to try to secure his grip on power while his voter support is still relatively robust.

Ruling-party politicians have said Abe could announce as early as Tuesday that he will delay a planned rise in the sales tax to 10 percent until next October and call a general election for Dec. 14.

Abe returned to power in December 2012 pledging to revive the economy with a mix of hypereasy monetary policy, reforms and spending. Opposition politicians say delaying the tax hike would show that his so-called Abenomics growth strategy has failed.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Stephen Powell)