The outcome of Japan's ruling party leadership race, which will choose the successor to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, has become more difficult to anticipate now that four senior lawmakers have entered the race, raising the possibility of a runoff.
But one thing is certain: Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers are under greater pressure to heed public opinion on who should succeed Suga than play by faction rules.
The term of House of Representatives members expires on Oct. 21, meaning that whoever wins the most votes and becomes the new LDP president — and hence prime minister — will lead the party and its coalition partner Komeito into a general election in the fall.
That has made many LDP lawmakers — particularly younger members who have yet to build a strong base in their constituency — look to install a popular leader, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and break from control of intraparty factions.
Last year, Suga was elected LDP president after major factions — such as the 96-member group led by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, the largest of the seven factions — threw support behind him even though he does not belong to a faction himself.
"The LDP must consider how the public would see the party," said Etsushi Tanifuji, professor emeritus of political science at Waseda University, alluding to traditional LDP politics in which faction leaders have effectively determined who became party president.
Although there still is a possibility of factions intervening if there is going to be a runoff, where Diet members hold a greater number of votes than rank-and-file members, Tanifuji warned it would be a costly move for the LDP members and the new leader.
"If the LDP puts the logic of the factions at the front and distances itself from the public's opinion in electing its leader, the party will lose support and lose many seats in the general election," he said.
Aside from the Hosoda faction, there is the 53-member faction led by Finance Minister Taro Aso, the 51-member faction formerly led by Wataru Takeshita (a former chairman of the LDP General Council who died Friday) and the 47-member faction led by LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai.
Three others are the 46-member faction led by Fumio Kishida, a former chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council, the 17-member faction led by former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and the 10-member faction by Nobuteru Ishihara, a former LDP secretary general.
Among the four contenders in the Sept. 29 vote, Kishida is the only one who leads a faction. The three others are vaccination minister Taro Kono, former communications minister Sanae Takaichi and LDP executive acting Secretary-General Seiko Noda.
So far, all the factions except the one led by Kishida are set to allow members to cast ballots on an individual basis without endorsing a particular candidate.
All four candidates have said that if they win the race and form a new Cabinet, they would not accept recommendations from factions regarding who should be given key Cabinet and party posts.
As Suga is stepping down amid mounting criticism over his coronavirus response and failure to communicate with the people, the LDP seemingly needs a new face who is clearly different from the 72-year-old prime minister in order to regain public support.
There is also a move among younger Diet members to try and install a leader from their own generation in place of the older lawmakers who had been key players under the government of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which lasted for more than seven years, and its continuation by Suga, who succeeded Abe's policies and is serving out the remainder of Abe's term.
"During a long rule of one government, people start to grow tired of it toward the end. Once one era comes to an end, there is a move to put behind those who were active in that era and bring new generations forward," said Hitoshi Komiya, a professor of Japanese political history at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.
The 58-year-old Kono, a reform-minded maverick in the LDP, may fit those inclinations. He has consistently placed top in opinion polls on who is most fit to become Japan's leader, and has attracted the support of younger LDP Diet members including Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, a future prime ministerial hopeful.
But with Kono having ruffled feathers in the past by opposing nuclear energy and abandoning a costly missile defense system, veteran lawmakers — including members of the Aso faction to which he belongs — have been cautious about backing him.
A Kyodo News poll of the LDP's Diet members shows it is a close race between Kishida, Kono and Takaichi, followed by Noda, although more than 30% of the Diet members have yet to decide their pick.
But a separate Kyodo survey targeting rank-and-file members paints a different picture, saying an overwhelming 48.6% of the respondents think Kono is the best fit, followed by 18.5% for Kishida, 15.7% for Takaichi and 3.3% for Noda.
The rank-and-file members, who are given an equal number of votes to Diet members in the first round, are closer to the general public in thinking, as anyone age 20 or above who has paid membership fees can participate in the leadership vote. The LDP currently has 382 Diet members.
Komiya said there is a question as to whether the LDP needs such "drastic medicine" as Kono if the party sees Suga as having ultimately succeeded in pushing forward COVID-19 vaccinations to help ease social and economic restrictions in Japan.
Some may turn to Kishida, known for his stability and calm demeanor, as a safer choice, he said.
Kishida, 64, has secured the support of the faction he heads, as well as that of veteran lawmakers in the large factions led by Hosoda, Aso and Takeshita.
Takaichi, 60, a member of the right wing of the LDP who does not belong to a faction, has won support from members of the Hosoda faction, including Abe, and other conservative members.
Noda, 61, entered the race at the last minute after gaining the endorsement of 20 LDP lawmakers, a prerequisite to take part.
But regardless of who becomes the leader, Komiya said the LDP is likely to retain its lead over opposition parties in the Diet.
"Be it Mr. Kono or Mr. Kishida, there won't be a change of government in the general election. So the new leader is only tasked with being better at communicating with the people than Mr. Suga," he said.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.