After days of speculation that has kept political observers in suspense, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba is set to formally declare he will not take part in the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election, boosting the prospects of vaccine czar Taro Kono.

The expected announcement will come just days before the presidential election officially begins and campaigning kicks off in earnest.

Ishiba has avoided making a definite statement about his intentions, keeping candidates, LDP lawmakers, political analysts and the public guessing for close to two weeks. Ishiba is now expected to throw his support behind Kono.

The longer Ishiba has waited, the harder it has become for him to throw his hat into the ring. The field vying to be the next LDP president and replace the current party leader and prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, is already crowded with three candidates: Kono, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi.

In addition, Ishiba has struggled to collect enough endorsements — even from lawmakers close to him. Despite officially stepping down last year, he effectively runs a 17-member faction in an advisory capacity, but some members have already decided to stand behind Kono, including Masaaki Taira, a Lower House member lawmaker who was in charge of public relations for the political group. In order to run, endorsements from at least 20 lawmakers are necessary.

By rallying behind Kono, Ishiba would be seeking to preserve his influence within the party or the Cabinet, rather than running for the fifth time in vain and losing further status within the LDP, which could see members of Ishiba’s faction continue to be overlooked for prominent party roles and Cabinet positions. When Ishiba lost in the leadership election last year, Suga won by a landslide and the former defense minister ended up coming in last, prompting some members to leave the faction.

Taro Kono, regulatory reform and vaccine minister, attends a news conference announcing his intention to run for leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo on Friday. | BLOOMBERG
Taro Kono, regulatory reform and vaccine minister, attends a news conference announcing his intention to run for leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo on Friday. | BLOOMBERG

Kono and Ishiba held a meeting Monday, during which Kono asked for Ishiba’s cooperation should the vaccine czar win the leadership contest.

In two public opinion polls conducted last weekend on who should succeed Suga, Kono took first place for both general respondents and LDP supporters. In the Asahi Shimbun poll, 42% of LDP supporters chose Kono and 13% went with Ishiba, while 31% of such respondents selected Kono and 13% picked Ishiba in the Nikkei poll.

Ishiba enjoys solid support among LDP supporters, and Kono is eager to win votes from the rank and file that would have gone to Ishiba.

“I’m determined to fight through this battle and emerge victorious by receiving your support,” Kono said at the beginning of a seminar held at the LDP headquarters on Tuesday.

However, aligning with Ishiba could be a liability for Kono. Ishiba has been a rare outspoken critic of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with Ishiba’s narrow loss to him in the 2012 LDP presidential race solidifying the animosity between the two heavyweights. The former defense minister has also been looked at with disdain by Taro Aso, the finance minister and the head of the faction to which Kono belongs, due to Ishiba’s active role in ousting Aso as prime minister in 2009.

As such, Kono is caught in a bind between Ishiba and the Abe-Aso coalition, with the latter wielding tremendous power as the party’s kingmakers.

Shinzo Abe (center) beat Shigeru Ishiba (right) in the Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election in September 2012. | KYODO
Shinzo Abe (center) beat Shigeru Ishiba (right) in the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election in September 2012. | KYODO

Abe has thrown his support behind Takaichi, encouraging more conservative and hawkish lawmakers to rally behind her.

Asked about Ishiba’s potential support during a television program Monday, Kono replied that he welcomes votes from anyone who agrees with his policy approach.

Ishiba previously served as regional revitalization minister, agriculture minister and LDP secretary-general. His frequent appearances on TV programs over the years, which have sought him out for his populist pronouncements and breadth of knowledge on security issues, have contributed to his perennially high numbers in public opinion polls.

While known as a hawk on China and keen to amend the pacifist Constitution, he has also called for greater cooperation with like-minded Asian countries — including South Korea — while sincerely facing up to Japan’s militarist past.

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