Race for Japan’s new prime minister kicks off

The election for Japan’s next prime minister begins on Friday, with four candidates vying for the ruling party’s leadership in an exceptionally close race.

Two women are among the candidates, both of whom are considered long shots, to govern a country that has never had a female prime minister.

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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga shocked the nation when he announced last month that he would not contest for the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Whoever the party chooses in a ballot on September 29 will become Prime Minister and face a general election by late November.

Because the LDP is projected to keep power, its leader will be in charge of the world’s third largest economy in the coming years, with issues ranging from negotiating with China to combating climate change.

While outspoken vaccination head Taro Kono is doing well in public opinion polls on who should be Japan’s next leader, the outcome is far from certain because most of the party’s key sections are opposed to a candidate.

“It’s kind of a free-for-all in this election since the factions aren’t endorsing anyone formally,” Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress, told AFP.

“It’s difficult to say whether there’s a clear front-runner.”

Ex-foreign minister Fumio Kishida, who heads a big LDP section that will back him in the contest, is considered to be Kono’s top opponent.

Sanae Takaichi, a polarizing right-winger, and former gender equality minister Seiko Noda, the other two contenders in the contest, are both considered long shots to become Japan’s first female leader.

If necessary, the voting on September 29 will be split into two phases, with 383 MPs and an equal number of rank-and-file members voting first.

However, because to the tight contest, it seems improbable that a candidate will get a majority. In such event, the top two candidates advance to the second round, which will include 383 legislators and one party representative from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

The contest is unusually difficult to forecast because factions that traditionally vote in blocs are mostly allowing members to vote as they choose this time.

“Insiders will make or break the winner,” Harris said, adding that Kono “probably has the edge, but if he does, it’s a very vulnerable one.”

Suga, whose favor ratings have plummeted in part due to his government’s pandemic response, announced his resignation after only a year in office, throwing the contest wide open.

Suga took office in September 2020, following the resignation of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, due to health concerns.

Suga’s reign has been hampered by worsening Covid infections and a series of restrictions, with the Tokyo Olympics failing to enhance his reputation.

Some have questioned whether Japan will return to the “revolving door” of leaders that existed before Abe began his second term in 2012.

Only five people have held the position of Prime Minister for five years or longer since World War II.

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