Fumio Kishida, policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, announced Tuesday that he won’t run in the party’s September leadership election, which is likely to make the contest a two-way race between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba.

With the LDP-Komeito coalition holding a majority of the seats in the powerful Lower House, the election will effectively decide who will serve as prime minister.

During a news conference on Tuesday, Kishida said he made the decision because he is convinced that it is better for Abe to handle a number of ongoing issues this year and next year, including disaster response, the planned abdication of the Emperor and an Upper House election scheduled for next summer. Kishida said he will support Abe in the September race.

“I believe it is important for Japan to cope with those events with Prime Minister Abe at the center” of the government, Kishida said.

He was also lagging behind other rivals in terms of popularity among voters, which had made his prospects in September rather bleak. When a Nikkei poll asked respondents earlier this month who would make the best prime minister, Kishida came in fifth with support from only 4 percent.

Nonetheless, being the leader of the LDP’s fourth-largest intraparty faction, with 47 members, he had been considered one of Abe’s main potential rivals in the race.

On July 17, members of Kishida’s faction held an extraordinary meeting and agreed to maintain a united front and take unified action in the contest. At Tuesday’s news conference, Kishida said he hopes the faction will act in accordance with that consensus, indicating he will try to persuade other faction members to support Abe.

The policy chief had remained mum on his plans for months, despite reported urging by some junior members of his Kochi Kai faction for him to throw his hat into the ring.

Ishiba, who heads a small faction of 20 members, faces an uphill battle in the leadership contest. Three major LDP factions — those led by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, Finance Minister Taro Aso and LDP general council chief Toshihiro Nikai — are all likely to support Abe, who is expected to formally announce his intention to seek re-election sometime next month.

Kishida, a Lower House member from Hiroshima Prefecture, served as foreign minister in Abe’s Cabinet for four years and seven months — the second-longest term in the post in Japanese history.

Many pundits consider him a moderate liberal due to his opposition to the revision of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, and he is regarded as a competent politician who can safely handle questions from opposition parties and reporters.

But Kishida has maintained his loyalty to Abe throughout both his role as foreign minister and now as LDP policy chief.

Despite long being regarded as a potential political rival, he has never publicly challenged any of the prime minister’s policies.

That’s led to criticism that Kishida has played a passive role in the power struggle in Nagatacho, the country’s political epicenter.

Critics have even called Kishida’s speeches “boring” because he usually toes the party line.

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