• Kyodo

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Taro Kono, the minister in charge of Japan’s vaccination rollout, is set to announce his bid to succeed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at a news conference Friday, people familiar with his thinking said Thursday.

The 58-year-old would be the third lawmaker to declare candidacy in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Sept. 29 leadership race after former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former communications minister Sanae Takaichi.

Kono consistently places high in opinion polls on who is most fit to become prime minister, and had been eyeing a run since Suga abruptly announced his resignation last week amid mounting criticism over his COVID-19 response and declining public approval ratings.

On Thursday, Kono met with Finance Minister Taro Aso, who heads the LDP faction to which Kono belongs, to seek backing for the bid.

Under LDP rules, hopefuls are required to gather 20 nominations from the party’s Diet members before they can stand in the presidential race, which will effectively decide the next prime minister because the party controls the powerful Lower House.

Born in Kanagawa Prefecture to a prominent political family, Kono graduated from Georgetown University in the United States and worked in the private sector before successfully running for the House of Representatives in 1996.

Kono, who doubles as administrative reform minister, has served in a number of other Cabinet posts including chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, foreign minister and defense minister.

Considered a reform-minded maverick within the conservative LDP, Kono is known for getting the ball rolling while being less skilled in gradually building consensus.

His participation in the race would be his second bid to become LDP leader, having made a failed attempt in 2009 after the party was ousted from power in a humiliating defeat in that year’s general election.

Meanwhile, LDP policy chief Hakubun Shimomura and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi both said Thursday they will not run, increasing the odds of a three-way contest between Kono, Kishida and Takaichi when campaigning begins on Sept. 17.

Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba has said he is still considering whether to enter the fray, while some close to him see his chances of success as slim and are pushing for him to back Kono instead.

Ishiba has unsuccessfully run for the party leadership four times already, most recently coming in third behind Suga and Kishida last September.

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