The policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Hakubun Shimomura, said Monday he will not challenge Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in the party’s upcoming leadership race and will instead continue focusing on drawing up COVID-19 countermeasures.
The LDP Policy Research Council chairman had earlier expressed his desire to run in the Sept. 29 election, which will take place amid growing public dissatisfaction over Suga’s pandemic response.
Shimomura’s exit leaves Suga with two rivals in the race, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi, though Takaichi must first secure the endorsement of 20 LDP lawmakers.
“As chairman of the Policy Research Council, it’s important that I put everything into dealing with COVID-19,” Shimomura told reporters. “I will concentrate on my current responsibilities.”
Others may still throw their hats in the ring before campaigning starts on Sept. 17, though another potential contender, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, said Monday that whether or not he will run is “a completely blank slate.”
Being re-elected as LDP leader would likely ensure Suga remains prime minister as the party controls the House of Representatives, the powerful lower chamber of parliament.
But recent media polls have shown the approval rating for his government has fallen to record-low levels as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads and the number of patients in serious condition surges, putting a strain on Japan’s medical system.
Some LDP members have privately expressed concerns about keeping Suga as party leader after a string of embarrassing defeats in local and national elections since he took power last September.
Despite this, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai reiterated his support for Suga’s re-election in an interview with Kyodo News on Monday, praising the prime minister as “working earnestly every day despite the current difficult situation” and voicing confidence in the LDP securing victory in the general election this fall.
According to government sources, Suga may choose not to dissolve the House of Representatives in early October as expected and instead let its members’ current four-year terms run out on Oct. 21.
In this scenario, campaigning for the general election would likely begin Oct. 5 with voting to take place Oct. 17, they said.
Lower House members have only reached the end of their terms once before under Japan’s postwar Constitution, in 1976 when Takeo Miki was prime minister.
In a meeting on Monday, Suga asked Nikai for assistance from the LDP and junior coalition partner Komeito in drawing up a new economic package for COVID-19 countermeasures.
While the size of the package was not immediately clear, Nikai later told reporters a “bold injection” of government funds would be necessary.
Meanwhile, coalition sources said Monday the government and ruling camp have decided not to heed demands by opposition parties to convene an extraordinary parliamentary session before the LDP leadership race.
Last week, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan had urged the LDP to hold a session from Sept. 7 through Sept. 16 to discuss the drawing up of a supplementary budget to deal with the pandemic, with the Japanese Communist Party also arguing the LDP leadership race should wait.
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