• Kyodo

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Vaccination minister Taro Kono is set to seek the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party and thus the post of prime minister, sources close to him said Friday, after incumbent Yoshihide Suga expressed his intention to step down amid criticism over his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kono, 58, who has previously assumed foreign and defense ministerial posts and who has been high on the list of possible future prime ministers in media opinion polls, will announce next week that he will run in the leadership race of the Liberal Democratic Party later this month, the sources said.

He is expected to face off against at least two other candidates — former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi — in the race that will install the party’s new face ahead of a general election in October or November.

Kono himself fell short of making clear his candidacy, telling reporters, “I will thoroughly consult with my colleagues to decide on whether (to enter the race).”

Under party rules, hopefuls are required to first gather 20 nominations from its Diet members to run in the presidential election.

Kono, who doubles as administrative and regulatory reform minister, belongs to one of the party’s major factions headed by former Prime Minister Taro Aso, the current deputy prime minister and finance minister.

Suga told reporters earlier in the day that he will not run in the presidential race, scheduled for Sept. 29, backpedaling on his earlier remarks that he would seek re-election. He became prime minister a year ago following his predecessor Shinzo Abe’s abrupt departure for health reasons.

Kishida and Takaichi reiterated that they intend to run in the leadership election.

Kishida said his intention to run has remained “unchanged.”

Takaichi, who would be the LDP’s first female president if elected, said she “will fight till the end.” She also said she was “appalled” at Suga’s flip-flopping on running, as he had repeatedly said he would seek re-election.

Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba told reporters whether he will run in the election is “a blank slate,” adding, “I will consult with like-minded colleagues of mine and come to a conclusion at an appropriate time.”

Kishida and Ishiba lost to Suga in last year’s LDP presidential race.

In addition, Hakubun Shimomura, who had pulled out from the Sept. 29 election after being urged by Suga to prioritize his work as LDP policy chief in responding to the pandemic, indicated he might re-enter the race.

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