The race to choose the next Liberal Democratic Party leader officially kicked off Friday, with four contenders vying to become Japan’s 100th prime minister at a time when the country is tiptoeing its way out of the coronavirus pandemic and facing increasing security threats from neighboring countries.

Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi and Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the vaccine rollout, have put their names forward, while Seiko Noda, the party’s deputy secretary-general, made an 11th hour entry into the race the day before the campaign began after securing endorsements from 20 lawmakers.

Voting will take place on Sept. 29. During the less than two-week campaign period, the four contenders will take part in a marathon of debates, online town hall meetings and television appearances.

A total of 766 votes — 383 from LDP lawmakers and 383 from rank-and-file members — will be up for grabs. If none of the candidates earn a majority in the first round, the top two contenders will advance to a runoff, which will take place immediately afterward and be decided with votes from 383 lawmakers and 47 prefectural representatives.

There is no clear front-runner and it is getting more plausible that a runoff will be needed to ultimately determine a winner. Although only LDP lawmakers and some rank-and-file members are eligible to vote, the contest to effectively determine the nation’s next leader will surely be closely watched by the public both domestically and abroad.

Vaccine chief Taro Kono delivers a campaign speech in Tokyo on Friday. | POOL / AFP-JIJI
Vaccine chief Taro Kono delivers a campaign speech in Tokyo on Friday. | POOL / AFP-JIJI

The four candidates each held ceremonies Friday morning to start their election campaign. They took part in a joint public speaking event organized by the party and a news conference in the afternoon.

“I want to move Japan forward by pushing a heavy door that is in front of us open once again,” said Kono, whose team was the first to submit the necessary paperwork to participate in the race Friday morning.

Kono on Friday morning took a swing at Takaichi, who has been advocating for the Self-Defense Forces to be given enemy base strike capabilities to deter attacks. Rebuking that plan as outdated, he instead mentioned the Japan-U.S. alliance as a mechanism to increase deterrence.

Kono, who has had separate tenures as defense minister and foreign minister, addressed challenges to international order, affirming Japan will stand with like-minded nations that value democracy, human rights and the rule of law. He additionally described Japan’s role on the international stage as being a mediator between Western nations and developing countries.

“I believe one of the pillars of Japanese diplomacy is for Japan to stand by fledging countries that are eager to walk toward the same direction (to achieve democracy),” Kono said.

Asked about the coronavirus response during a Friday afternoon news conference, the vaccine chief highlighted the necessity of regulatory reform and digitalization to expedite the distribution of cash handouts, medical equipment for patients receiving treatment and antigen test kits.

At his ceremony, Kishida declared he is the leader “who is needed in the current times” and vowed to restore trust in the LDP and national unity that has been tested by the pandemic.

Kishida raised party reform as his biggest point of contention for the leadership race when answering questions at a news conference.

Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to lawmakers in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO
Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to lawmakers in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO

At a separate event Friday afternoon, he vowed to transform the economy by shifting away from neoliberal policies, which he said brought growth but widened a wealth gap that was further exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Now is the time that everyone around the country feels the benefits of economic growth by building Japanese-style capitalism that generates a virtuous cycle of growth and distribution,” Kishida said.

The former foreign minister called for enhancing Japan’s missile defense system and intelligence collecting as well as amending the national security strategy.

Takaichi expressed her determination to emerge victorious in the leadership fight and showed gratitude toward her supporters. Over 90 lawmakers and representatives of lawmakers attended her rally Friday morning. Takaichi described them as her “strongest allies,” united in the same ideals of state and economic policies, regardless of their factions.

During the Friday afternoon public speaking event, she argued in favor of suspending the government’s target of bringing its primary balance into the black by fiscal 2025. She was in favor of increasing government spending and continuing to pursue a 2% inflation target.

She said she was alarmed by a dramatic increase in cyberattacks against the country. To beef up Japan’s defense in the digital realm, she suggested instituting an information ministry that oversees an agency specialized in cybersecurity and creating a body akin to a trade representative to protect the nation’s economic security.

“I believe that the nation’s ultimate mission is to protect lives and property, defend territory, territorial waters, territorial airspace and resources and safeguard the nation’s sovereignty and honor,” Takaichi said.

Noda made clear she stands for the vulnerable members of society and values tolerance, arguing that politics “should not be carried out by powerful leaders” but rather by leaders with citizens’ best interests in mind. She said she will be mindful of the public sentiment in policymaking.

From left: The LDP's deputy secretary-general Seiko Noda, former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi, vaccine chief Taro Kono and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida | KYODO
From left: The LDP’s deputy secretary-general Seiko Noda, former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi, vaccine chief Taro Kono and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida | KYODO

On Friday afternoon, she chided fellow LDP lawmakers and fingerpointing within the party before championing party reform.

“First and foremost, I believe that self-examination and self-review are necessary,” Noda said. “As a ruling party, each and every lawmaker needs to ask themselves whether they have been meeting the people’s expectations and why trust in the party has diminished.”

Only then will the party be able to work on reform, she said.

Addressing female empowerment, Noda said she wants women to make up 50% of the Cabinet. Regarding rapid population decrease, she identified related economic and national security issues, calling for “aggressive investment” in education and child care.

This year’s presidential election was originally set to determine the successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the country’s longest-serving leader. Abe decided to step down due to health reasons during his final term as party president in August 2020, paving the way for his right-hand man and chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, to serve the remainder of Abe’s term.

Suga had been eager to run in the leadership contest and defy detractors who labeled him a caretaker prime minister. However, a series of missteps on COVID-19, including forging ahead with the Olympics despite public opposition, along with several LDP losses in byelections and regional elections, have tarnished Suga’s reputation.

Former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi at a kick-off ceremony in Tokyo on Friday | KYODO
Former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi at a kick-off ceremony in Tokyo on Friday | KYODO

The final straw may have originated with Kishida’s intrepid campaign promise to slap term limits of up to three consecutive years on party executives. That move took direct aim at LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who has served in that position for more than five years and has been criticized for favoring his allies and managing party affairs in a heavy-handed manner.

In acts of desperation to salvage support, Suga attempted to reshuffle the party’s executive lineup and contemplated calling a snap election to postpone the leadership race. But those would-be moves were met with disdain from Suga’s fellow lawmakers. Unable to execute his rights of personnel management and the dissolution of the Lower House, the Suga administration’s approval sank to the point of no return.

The next party leader will immediately be challenged by an assortment of political problems: COVID-19 response, diplomacy and staggering national debt, to name a few.

With a general election looming this fall, the winner bears enormous responsibility as a party leader to maintain the LDP’s majority in the House of Representatives by ensuring the cooperation of its junior partner, Komeito, and appealing to unaffiliated voters.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato notified the Diet affairs chiefs Friday afternoon that an extraordinary session would be convened on Oct. 4 to nominate the new prime minister. The top government spokesperson told reporters Thursday a general election will not take place before Lower House members’ terms expire on Oct. 21, meaning the vote could take place as late as Nov. 28.

Japan’s allies and rivals are keeping close watch on the leadership election’s outcome with one critical question in mind: Can the next leader stick around and avoid another period of “revolving door” leadership in Tokyo.

The United States is especially worried about the possibility that Japan, a crucial ally in the Asia-Pacific region, could enter a phase of political instability amid security threats from North Korea and China.

“The LDP presidential race could control international affairs,” an LDP lawmaker who has contacts in Washington said shortly after Suga announced his intention to quit the party election.

Seiko Noda (center), the LDP's deputy secretary-general, holds a kick-off ceremony in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO
Seiko Noda (center), the LDP’s deputy secretary-general, holds a kick-off ceremony in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO

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