The campaign to become Japan’s next prime minister began yesterday, with four candidates vying for leadership of the ruling party in an unusually close race.
In televised speeches, the candidates set out their priorities, from boosting Japan’s digital prowess to addressing the falling birthrate.
Among them are two women hoping to lead a nation that has never had a female prime minister, although both are considered long shots.
The race follows Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s shock announcement that he would not run for head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Whoever the party picks in a Sept. 29 vote is to contest a general election that has to be held by late November.
As the LDP is expected to retain power, its leader is likely to be the person leading the world’s third-largest economy in the coming years, and would face challenges from dealing with China to tackling climate change.
“We find ourselves in a time of climate crisis... We must exert maximum effort, by making renewable energy a priority,” said Japanese Minister for Administrative Reform and Regulatory Reform Taro Kono, who is in charge of overseeing the nation’s COVID-19 vaccination program and leads public opinion polls on the nation’s next leader.
“It is not a pipe dream to power this country with 100 percent renewable energy,” Kono said.
His main competition is expected to come from former Japanese minister of foreign affairs Fumio Kishida, who heads a large LDP faction that is to back him in the race.
Two of the few women at the top of Japanese politics — divisive right-winger Sanae Takaichi and former Japanese minister for gender equality Seiko Noda — are also standing.
The race is hard to predict because factions that often vote as blocs are this time largely leaving members to vote as they choose.
“Given that the factions aren’t endorsing anyone officially, it’s kind of a free-for-all,” said Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress. “It’s hard to say that there’s really a true front-runner.”
Kishida yesterday said that he wanted to see wages rise and move away from neo-liberal policies, while Takaichi — a self-declared fan of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher — emphasized the importance of strong defense.
Noda said she would aim for women to make up half of her Cabinet if elected and pledged to improve the lives of the socially disadvantaged.
“I am a mother. I have a family member who has disabilities,” Noda said. “I want to fight this campaign by using my knowledge about diversity as a weapon.”
The voting on Sept. 29 is to be over two rounds, if needed, with 383 lawmakers and an equal number of rank-and-file LDP members voting in the first instance, but the close race makes it unlikely a candidate would secure a majority. In that case, the top two move to a second round involving 383 lawmakers and one party representative from each of Japan’s 47 regions.
“Insiders are ultimately going to make or break the winner,” Harris said, adding that Kono’s popular support means that he “probably has the edge, but if he has a lead, it’s a very vulnerable one.”
Suga, whose approval ratings have tanked partly over his government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, announced his resignation this month after just a year in the top job.
His term has been marred by worsening waves of COVID-19 infections and repeated rounds of restrictions, with the Tokyo Olympics failing to boost his popularity.
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