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With exactly one week left until the Liberal Democratic Party leadership election campaign kicks off, Taro Kono, the public’s favorite in opinion polls, finally threw his hat into the ring.

At a packed news conference on Friday, Kono touched on his achievements as the minister in charge of administrative reform and the vaccine rollout. He touted moves to slash cumbersome bureaucratic customs, promote teleworking and achieve more than 1 million vaccinations a day as some of his biggest victories.

He also cited his experience in negotiating vaccine deals with other countries, saying it showed his ability to coordinate with different stakeholders, giving him an advantage over other candidates.

“I will be receptive to your thoughts and apprehension, share information with you, release messages and overcome this crisis we face together with you all,” he said. “I want to create a country in which fair opportunities are provided, hard-working people are rewarded and no one is left behind.”

In a campaign pledge described in a pamphlet, he vowed to make “necessary preparations” for a COVID-19 booster shot. He promised to“drastically” curb foot traffic “if necessary,” though he did not elaborate on how to achieve that. He affirmed he would beef up screenings for arrivals to counter variants and support the development of domestic treatments and vaccines.

Doubling down on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s environmental initiative, Kono swore Japan would achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and balance economic growth with climate change measures.

The vaccine chief’s announcement will surely heat up the party’s presidential race — which will effectively decide Suga’s replacement as prime minister ahead of the Lower House election. Many junior LDP lawmakers with weak support bases in their electoral districts are hoping Kono will become the party president so they can woo voters in the upcoming general election.

In multiple public opinion polls released this week, Kono was the top pick to be the next LDP president.

Friday’s announcement came after Kono held a series of meetings with Finance Minister Taro Aso, who leads the faction the vaccine chief belongs to. Kono said at the news conference that Aso had given him words of encouragement, which he took as an endorsement for his candidacy.

After numerous meetings with Finance Minister Taro Aso, Taro Kono got his blessing to run in the LDP presidential race. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
After numerous meetings with Finance Minister Taro Aso, Taro Kono got his blessing to run in the LDP presidential race. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

The Aso faction is an important asset to Kono to attract support and votes for the leadership election, but some members had been concerned about Kono’s previous remarks promoting less reliance on nuclear power and allowing a reigning empress or an emperor from the female line.

In an apparent effort to win over skeptical members of the faction and conservative lawmakers, Kono dialed back his stance on those issues in an informal news conference Wednesday, affirming the necessity to restart nuclear power plants and the importance of preserving male-only imperial succession.

Asked again about those issues on Friday, Kono said nuclear energy would “eventually” be phased out and called building additional nuclear plants “unrealistic.” Kono essentially backed down on allowing a female empress to reign, saying he will respect the opinions of an expert panel on imperial succession.

Another contentious point leading up to his decision to run was whether Kono was willing to cooperate with former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who has yet to announce whether he’ll enter the race.

If Ishiba, who is often ranked second in public polls behind Kono, decides to stand down and back Kono, the vaccine czar’s chances of victory will increase considerably since he could rake in the votes of rank-and-file members who typically support Ishiba.

However, any cooperation with Ishiba could irritate Aso and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and ultimately harm Kono’s candidacy. Ishiba tried to oust Aso when the finance minister was prime minister in 2009 and was a rare outspoken critic of the Abe administration. Abe is a de facto leader of the largest faction within the party and has already thrown his support behind former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi.

As a teenager, Kono attended a private boarding school in Connecticut, where he learned English, before entering Georgetown University.

He has more than 2.3 million followers on his Japanese-language Twitter account, making him the most followed politician on the social media platform in the country.

He previously ran for party leadership in 2009.

The vaccine chief’s announcement will surely heat up the party’s presidential race — which will effectively decide Suga’s replacement as prime minister ahead of the Lower House election. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
The vaccine chief’s announcement will surely heat up the party’s presidential race — which will effectively decide Suga’s replacement as prime minister ahead of the Lower House election. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

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