The Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential race is likely to get a bit more crowded following Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s surprise decision Friday to bow out.
With the incumbent’s withdrawal from the race, a significant obstacle has been removed for members of the Suga administration and other leading LDP hopefuls to enter the contest. Campaigning for the party’s presidential poll officially kicks off Sept. 17, culminating in an election on Sept. 29.
Suga’s abrupt departure from the fray could put candidates already announcing their bids — former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi — at a disadvantage as they are forced to rethink campaign strategies tailored to beating Suga.
If even more candidates throw their hats into the ring, that could further complicate the course of the LDP leadership contest.
One potential key to victory is securing support from the party’s current kingmakers: former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and current Finance Minister Taro Aso. Both essentially serve as the heads of their respective party factions, bringing to bear all the blocs have to offer. Abe is a de facto leader of the party’s largest bloc, the Hosoda faction, while Aso’s faction has 53 members and is the party’s second largest.
Media reports have said Abe intends to back Takaichi, increasing the likelihood the former minister will be able to gain the support of 20 lawmakers in the Diet and formally enter the race. Takaichi does not belong to a faction but is close to the influential former prime minister.
Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, has reportedly received Suga’s support to become his successor. Kono has already started asking for support of the members of the Aso faction to which he belongs.
Here is a list of contenders and their potential paths to becoming party chief, which would virtually assure them of becoming the nation’s next prime minister.
Fumio Kishida, former foreign minister
Before Friday, Kishida had been seen as the most viable rival to Suga. He leads his own 46-member faction and for a long time he had been Abe’s pick to succeed him as prime minister.
By criticizing Suga’s coronavirus measures and provoking powerful LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai with a term-limit proposal on executive members, Kishida was hoping to consolidate votes from lawmakers and rank-and-file members who dislike both of them.
But with Suga out of the mix, the floodgates could open for more popular and widely recognized candidates. Kishida built a solid reputation during his time as the country’s top diplomat and later as the party’s policy council chair, but one of his weaknesses has been a noticeable lack of charisma. Heading into a general election, his apparent inability to appeal to a wider breadth of constituents could impact his electability in the LDP poll.
Sanae Takaichi, former internal affairs minister
Although Abe had once considered Kishida as his successor, Takaichi, one of the few high-profile female lawmakers in the country, would align more closely ideologically with the former prime minister. She hopes to gain support from the more conservative and hawkish wing of the party, including those in Abe’s Hosoda faction.
Since Takaichi does not belong to any faction, which are often critical for solidifying one’s intraparty support base, she will face a major obstacle in obtaining the endorsement of 20 lawmakers needed to take part in the election. If she were able to gain the endorsements of Abe and at least some members of the Hosoda faction, that momentum could propel her to the front of the race.
Japan has never had a female prime minister.
Taro Kono, minister in charge of administrative reforms
Kono has reportedly decided to run in the leadership election as he looks to take advantage of his popularity among the general public, as seen by his 2.3 million Twitter followers.
In a Nikkei daily poll released last week asking who should be the next party leader, Kono emerged as the favorite among all respondents, with support from 16% of those polled, a figure that rose to 18% among LDP supporters. Younger lawmakers are pinning their hopes on Kono’s popularity, believing that they can ride his coattails to victory in the upcoming general election.
Broadcaster Nippon News Network and the Yomiuri daily reported that Suga intends to back Kono. Both represent districts in Kanagawa Prefecture, but perhaps more importantly, Suga has long valued Kono’s job performance, putting him in charge of two key portfolios: administrative reform and the country’s vaccine rollout.
Still, Kono would face intraparty challenges. The Georgetown University alum, a member of the Aso faction, has faced blowback from some veteran lawmakers within the faction who disagree with some of his stances, including his push for less reliance on nuclear power in the nation’s energy mix. During a meeting Friday, Aso reportedly gave Kono his blessing to run but demurred from actively endorsing him.
No matter who wins the leadership race, the coronavirus pandemic will remain a key challenge. Considering that an Upper House election must be held next year, Aso may fear the impact on his faction’s influence if Kono, as a potential prime minister, struggles to rein in the deadly virus — as Suga did — and ends up being another caretaker premier.
Shigeru Ishiba, former defense minister
Ishiba has run in four presidential races and served in a variety of key posts both in the Cabinet and with the party. He’s a well-known figure with a high degree of name recognition and has strong support among party members, particularly those in rural areas. In the Nikkei poll, Ishiba was effectively even with Kono as all respondents’ top choice.
However, Ishiba was a vocal critic of the Abe administration and was sidelined from prominent roles both in the Cabinet and the party leadership. The former defense chief also has a contentious relationship with Aso.
Ishiba’s standing within the party weakened further last year when he finished last among three candidates in the leadership race to choose Abe’s successor. Suga earned 377 votes in total, while Ishiba took home just 68 votes.
Ishiba, who has also served as party secretary-general, heads a 17-member faction. During a news program Friday evening on TBS, he said he would soon make a decision on whether to enter the race.
Seiko Noda, LDP executive acting secretary-general
Noda, one of the most prominent female lawmakers in the LDP, has reportedly confided her interest in running to colleagues. Even before Friday’s news, she had been eager to participate in the leadership contest.
Like Takaichi, Noda does not belong to a faction. However, she may be able to garner the endorsement of Nikai, whom Suga was going to replace in an effort to shake up the lineup of party executives. Nikai, who is the head of a 47-member faction, was previously supportive of her enthusiasm to run in a future race, later appointing her as a party executive.
On Friday, however, Nikai did not answer a reporter’s question about who he would back in the upcoming race.
Hakubun Shimomura, LDP policy council chief
Shimomura, who is chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, had said he would challenge Suga in the leadership contest but withdrew his candidacy when Suga demanded that he leave his executive post if he wanted to stay in the race. Shimomura also heads the LDP’s coronavirus response team.
After Friday’s announcement, Shimomura hinted that he could once again enter the race. He is a member of the Hosoda faction and hopes to pick up endorsements from its large contingent of members.
Toshimitsu Motegi, foreign minister
Motegi,the nation’s top diplomat, is acting chairman of the Takeshita faction, the party’s third-largest with 52 members. He has not made clear whether he will run, but told reporters Friday he would collate members’ views to unite the faction.
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