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The battle for leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party ramped up Thursday after former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida announced his intention to run for the top position, presenting the most serious challenge yet to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s re-election bid.

“Our democracy is facing a crisis, as people’s trust in politics is broken,” Kishida said. “I decided to run in the race to demonstrate that the LDP is a party that is capable of listening to people’s voices and providing a variety of choice — and to protect our country’s democracy.”

Although Suga still has the upper hand, Kishida’s emergence underscores the anxiety within the LDP over the Cabinet’s rapidly sinking popularity ahead of an important Lower House election that will be held sometime this autumn.

During a news conference, Kishida was careful not to overtly criticize Suga but expressed his alarm at the public’s anger and disappointment with the LDP. He repeatedly emphasized that public opinion would be reflected in his policies.

Regarding the pandemic, Kishida vowed to bolster the health care system as well as the development of vaccines and medical treatments. He said he is supportive of amending legislation in the future to help suppress foot traffic but is skeptical about introducing lockdowns. To get the economy going again, he supports offering incentives to promote vaccinations and taking advantage of electronic vaccine certificates and so-called vaccine passports.

In an apparent nod to the view that Suga’s coronavirus response is founded on baseless optimism, Kishida said, “It’s necessary to respond with flexibility … with the worst-case scenario in mind.”

However, the former foreign minister did not elaborate on specific plans to achieve those objectives and struggled to make clear how his approach to the coronavirus would differ from Suga’s.

The Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election committee hold a meeting at the party's headquarters in Tokyo on Thursday. | KYODO
The Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election committee hold a meeting at the party’s headquarters in Tokyo on Thursday. | KYODO

He also pledged to shake up the party’s executive by imposing a term limit of up to three consecutive years and promoting young and middle-level lawmakers over heavyweights, a move that could provoke the party’s sitting secretary-general, Toshihiro Nikai.

On foreign policy, he cited tensions in the Taiwan Strait to underscore his point that Japan should work with countries that share its democratic values, such as the United States and those in Europe.

Also Thursday, the party approved its leadership election schedule, with the contest officially beginning Sept. 17 and the vote being held Sept. 29. The election is taking place because Suga’s term wraps up on Sept. 30.

Candidates usually tour the country to address various audiences, but it’s uncertain whether they will be able to campaign in this manner in the midst of the pandemic. Details will be decided at the next election administration meeting, said Takeshi Noda, the chair of the LDP’s presidential election administration commission.

“It’s crucial for us to listen to as much feedback as possible about this presidential election,” Noda said.

With the dates having been set when they are, the likelihood of Suga calling a snap election after the party leadership vote has increased. Suga said Wednesday he will prioritize the pandemic response in deciding when to dissolve the Diet. The terms of current Lower House members end on Oct. 21.

Suga, who announced his intention to run in July, had been hoping to win the party presidential race unopposed. Despite the public’s strong dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the pandemic, as reflected in polls, he appears confident in his administration’s response, which has relied heavily on vaccines.

Nikai, who was the first main faction leader to champion Suga in last year’s race, has declared his 47-member group will again endorse Suga. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who is the de facto leader of the Hosoda faction, the party’s largest — and finance minister Taro Aso have also made it clear that they back Suga.

Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Hakubun Shimomura speaks to reporters at the party's headquarters in Tokyo on Aug. 19. | KYODO
Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Hakubun Shimomura speaks to reporters at the party’s headquarters in Tokyo on Aug. 19. | KYODO

But within the party, some members are growing dissatisfied with Suga’s leadership. Younger LDP lawmakers who do not have a solid support base in their district are apprehensive over the general election and are said to have demanded a choice over the party’s leader. Those younger lawmakers have been pushing multiple candidates to come forward so there can be active policy debates and increased pressure on Suga.

A recent poll by the Sankei Shimbun showed Suga’s approval is sagging even among LDP supporters: only 5.1% of survey respondents selected him as their choice for prime minister in August, down 9.9 percentage points from the previous month. The Cabinet’s approval rating was 32.1% in the Sankei poll.

Even before Kishida joined the field, former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi and current policy council chief Hakubun Shimomura had openly expressed their desire to enter the race. The focus will be on whether Suga’s challengers can obtain the endorsement of the 20 lawmakers necessary to take part in the election.

Kishida has obvious advantages compared with Takaichi and Shimomura. He leads his own faction composed of 46 members, while Takaichi does not belong to any faction.

Shimomura is a member of the Hosoda faction, but Hiroshige Seko, the LDP’s Upper House secretary-general and a member of the same group, has reprimanded the policy council chief for demonstrating an interest in running. Shimomura is the head of the party’s COVID-19 response team and needs to concentrate on that, Seko said Tuesday.

Nonetheless, Kishida was unsuccessful when he ran against Suga in the 2020 party presidential election to choose Abe’s replacement, attracting 89 votes out of 535. Although Abe backed Suga in that campaign and has revealed his support for the sitting prime minister, he had for a long time considered Kishida to be his successor while he was prime minister.

Then-internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi attends a news conference in Tokyo in September 2019. | REUTERS
Then-internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi attends a news conference in Tokyo in September 2019. | REUTERS

This time around, a total of 766 votes — 383 from LDP lawmakers and 383 from rank-and-file members — will be up for grabs. In last year’s leadership election, the party simplified the procedure for rank-and-file members due to the coronavirus crisis, counting only 141 votes from the party’s prefectural representatives. Kishida could get a boost from rank-and-file members who disapprove of Suga’s performance.

Still, the former foreign minister faces an uphill battle. He must secure support from Abe as well as Aso, who leads a 53-member faction. Abe and Aso, known for having a tight bond, wield tremendous influence within the party along with their rival Nikai, so securing their endorsement is crucial for a strong showing in an election.

If Kishida loses the presidential campaign, it would be highly likely for him and his faction members to be given the cold shoulder by the rest of the party, in the process being frozen out of important party executive and Cabinet posts.

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