• REUTERS, KYODO, JIJI

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Outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will back the popular minister in charge of the nation’s vaccination rollout to succeed him, while Liberal Democratic Party kingmaker and former leader Shinzo Abe will support a hawkish ex-internal affairs minister, domestic media reported Saturday.

Political maneuvering was heating up among potential candidates and ruling party grandees on Saturday, a day after Suga’s surprise announcement that he was stepping down, ending a one-year term as prime minister that has seen his support crumble as COVID-19 surged.

Suga was to back Taro Kono, Nippon News Network reported on Saturday after sources close to Kono said that he intended to run for head of the LDP. Kono told reporters only that he wanted to consult party colleagues before deciding.

Suga is expected to stay on until his successor is chosen in the party election scheduled for Sept. 29. The LDP leader will become prime minister given the party’s majority in the Diet. A general Lower House election must be held later in the fall.

A former foreign and defense minister, Kono, 58, is popular among young voters after building support through Twitter, where he has 2.3 million followers — a rarity in Japanese politics, which is dominated by older men less adept with social media.

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.

Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has already thrown his hat in the ring, while several others have voiced interest in entering the LDP race.

With no clear front-runner, the stance of Abe, Suga’s predecessor, will be closely watched, given his influence inside the two largest factions of the LDP and among conservative lawmakers, analysts say.

Abe, who stepped down citing ill health last September after a record eight-year term, had publicly backed Suga’s re-election. With Suga out, Abe now supports former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi, who is close to the former leader, broadcaster TBS said.

Sanae Takaichi | KYODO
Sanae Takaichi | KYODO

Takaichi, who would be Japan’s first female prime minister, had been seen as struggling to gain the backing of the 20 LDP lawmakers needed to run in the party race. Abe’s support could boost her chances.

Takaichi has said she “will fight till the end.” She has also said she was “appalled” at Suga’s flip-flopping on running, as he had repeatedly said he would seek re-election.

Kishida said on Saturday he would leave the national sales tax at 10% if elected, reiterating that he would fund a new economic package worth tens of trillions of yen by issuing more government bonds.

“I’m not thinking of touching the sales tax for the time being,” Kishida told a Nippon News Network program. “We then must consider Japan’s finances from the standpoint of how to make use of the fruit of economic growth.”

Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba has said he has not made a decision on whether to run in the election, saying that he will “consult with like-minded colleagues” 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.

Japan had gone through six prime ministers in as many years, before Abe’s record eight-year tenure.

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