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In the race to choose the next leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, vaccine czar Taro Kono and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida are within touching distance of each other when it comes to the number of endorsements they have earned from lawmakers, according to media reports.

But with less than a week until voting day, former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi has been rapidly expanding her support among LDP lawmakers and rank-and-file members. Although her appeal was initially believed to be limited to lawmakers who belong to the more conservative and hawkish wing of the party, some junior Lower House members are also throwing their weight behind Takaichi.

Her rapid ascendance from a minor candidate to a viable contender — something that even some of her supporters had not anticipated — has shaken up the race to effectively choose the nation’s 100th prime minister, with no clear front-runner emerging.

If she beats the odds and wins the race, she will become Japan’s first female prime minister. But even if she loses, she has raised her profile within the party and among the public, something that would give her an edge if she were to run again in the future.

“In the beginning, the media treated her like she was an unlikely candidate, and even lawmakers were skeptical, asking me, ‘Are you really going to back her?’” said Minoru Kiuchi, a five-term Lower House member who runs Takaichi’s campaign. “Nobody thinks she’s a minor candidate anymore.”

A total of 764 votes — 382 from LDP lawmakers and 382 from rank-and-file members — will be up for grabs on Wednesday. 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 382 lawmakers and 47 prefectural representatives.

A Yomiuri opinion poll conducted last weekend showed that Kono’s support rating among LDP rank-and-file members had reached a whopping 41%. Kishida and Takaichi were in a dead heat for second place, with the former obtaining 22% and the latter receiving 20%. Seiko Noda, who made an 11th-hour entry into the race, received the approval of 6% of LDP members.

If Kono earns the most votes and Takaichi claims second place but the vaccine czar fails to earn a majority, there is the possibility that Takaichi could consolidate votes from lawmakers opposed to Kono and pull off an upset — thanks to the considerable influence of one of her backers, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, within the LDP. At the same time, it’s plausible that lawmakers who had voted for Kishida in the first round would instead cast their ballot for Kono.

In the 2012 leadership contest, Abe defeated Shigeru Ishiba in a runoff and became the party president, even though Ishiba had earned more votes than Abe did in the first round.

“A runoff election (in the leadership contest) is a certainty,” said Takuma Oohamazaki, a political analyst and CEO of election consulting firm J.A.G Japan. “There’s a good chance that Ms. Takaichi will surpass Mr. Kishida and come in second.”

Former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi holds a news conference to declare her candidacy in Tokyo on Sept. 8. | KYODO
Former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi holds a news conference to declare her candidacy in Tokyo on Sept. 8. | KYODO

Takaichi’s strong performance is believed to be attributed to one key factor: Abe’s endorsement. Multiple media outlets reported on Sept. 4, the day after Suga’s surprise announcement that he would not seek re-election, that the former prime minister had revealed to his close allies that he would back Takaichi. Abe is the de facto leader of the LDP’s largest caucus.

Abe tweeted his official endorsement for Takaichi on Sept. 16, praising her for presenting policies to counter the pandemic and stimulate the economy, as well as showing the determination “to protect Japan’s sovereignty and also offering a strong vision for the nation.”

Takaichi first entered politics in 1993 and represents a mostly rural district in Nara Prefecture. She has vowed to continue to pay visits to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which is seen by China and South Korea as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism, if she becomes prime minister — a move that would almost certainly anger the neighboring countries.

She has also called for an economic security law that would make it harder for technologies developed at Japanese research institutes to be taken out of the country and used by foreign governments and their armed forces. She is also in favor of increasing government spending and continuing to pursue a 2% inflation target.

In this year’s leadership election, all factions except for the one run by Kishida will allow their members to vote for any candidate in the first round, enabling LDP lawmakers to vote for their favorite.

Some factions have endorsed specific candidates but ostensibly will not punish those who vote for someone else. This has yielded fluid voting patterns and given flexibility to lawmakers, something that junior politicians had demanded of faction executives.

Political analysts had speculated that many lawmakers who have won in three elections or fewer would support Kono to take advantage of the minister’s name recognition in the upcoming Lower House poll, which will take place by late November.

Those less experienced lawmakers — who comprise 46% of all LDP Lower House members — are feeling vulnerable ahead of the general election, since they capitalized on Abe’s popularity to win elections in 2012, 2014 and 2017.

Nonetheless, Kono does not necessarily have a definite advantage in securing support from these younger Lower House lawmakers. In fact, 32 members with three terms or fewer had come out in support of Takaichi as of Friday, while Kono had 35 members and Kishida had secured 28, according to a tally kept by Oohamazaki.

As of Friday, Kishida led the number of endorsements from LDP lawmakers with 97 votes. Kono was in second place with 82 votes, and Takaichi was in third with 68 votes, according to the tally. Out of the 382 lawmakers eligible to cast a ballot, 114 of them are yet to make an official announcement about who they will vote for.

Oohamazaki predicts that Takaichi is most likely to pick up over 10 additional lawmakers, although her total count could be pushed as high as 90.

Over 90 lawmakers and representatives of lawmakers attended her campaign kick-off rally on Sept. 17.

About 70% of the Hosoda faction could vote for Takaichi, he said Thursday, with roughly 40 members of the group having not yet revealed their pick as of that moment, possibly giving her enough of a boost to sneak into the top two positions.

Former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi at a kick-off ceremony for her campaign in Tokyo on Sept. 17. | KYODO
Former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi at a kick-off ceremony for her campaign in Tokyo on Sept. 17. | KYODO

“In terms of name recognition, I think she is the least known among the four candidates,” said Rui Matsukawa, parliamentary vice-minister of defense and one-term Upper House member who supports Takaichi. “However, as she is given more opportunities to speak, such as on television, I think more people will know that she is a fine person who endeavors to convey her thoughts to the public.”

Matsukawa, who is a member of the Hosoda faction, said she is sympathetic to Kono’s views on digitalization, with Noda somewhat on the advancement of women and with Kishida on the economy. But she is drawn to Takaichi the most because of the candidate’s position on beefing up Japan’s defense — Takaichi is in favor of acquiring the capability to strike enemy bases to deter attacks and the deployment of medium-range missiles from the U.S. military.

“Because former Prime Minister Abe has been campaigning so hard (for Takaichi) and the number of lawmakers who are under his influence is large, the number of lawmakers supporting Takaichi is increasing,” said Jun Iio, a professor of Japanese politics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

“Additionally, right-leaning voters who were satisfied with the Abe Cabinet to a certain degree are somewhat dissatisfied with the stance of the Suga Cabinet,” said Iio. Some conservatives have perceived Suga as lacking enthusiasm for constitutional revision and as having put an enemy base strike capability on the back burner.

“Takaichi, who has clearly set out her stance, has actively consolidated support from those voting groups,” as they are not content with the other candidates’ positions, said Iio.

When Takaichi first revealed her intention to run in an article published in a monthly magazine on Aug. 10, she was widely seen as a no-hope candidate. At that time, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was expected to seek re-election as the party president.

“In the beginning, I did not anticipate (Takaichi) would receive this much support,” said Kimi Onoda, a one-term House of Councilors member and one of Takaichi’s 20 nominees — the number of lawmaker endorsements needed to enter the race. “I was not even sure whether we’d be able to collect enough nominations. At that time, I was really hoping to be a part of a process (enabling Takaichi to take part in the race) to show the LDP has such a talented person.”

Onoda, who was enamored with Takaichi’s deep understanding of a variety of policy areas and her policymaking skills, was initially torn. Even though she was elated that Takaichi would be running, she is a member of the Suga administration as a parliamentary secretary for justice, meaning she would have been expected to back the prime minister. She is also a member of the Takeshita faction, and she was unsure whether the faction would allow her to support Takaichi in the leadership contest.

On Sept. 3, Suga abruptly announced that he would not run for re-election, meaning he would be stepping down at the end of his term in late September.

The incumbent not running suddenly threw the race wide open. It paved the way for Kono, a member of the Suga administration and a favorite with the public, to enter the race. He became the top choice in polls on who the public and LDP members want to be the next prime minister.

Facing Kono and Kishida, who raised his profile by challenging Suga in the race to succeed Abe in last year’s presidential election, Takaichi was expected to face an uphill battle.

However, her performance in televised debates and media interviews shed light on her ability to articulate her views on a wide range of policy issues without faltering. She has been known as a hawk on diplomatic and defense issues, but those media appearances gave her a platform to explain her policies on the coronavirus response, social security, the economy and child care — areas where her views were not well known among the public.

“Oftentimes, people say she doesn’t have companions … but her style has been studying policies untiringly at a Diet members’ office building or a dormitory for Diet members,” Kiuchi said.“Some of them are dismissive of that, but I believe that is her strength, considering her ability to respond to questions. It’s extraordinary that she is studying policies while others are out drinking.”

Takaichi also reactivated her official Twitter account to promote her policy ideas. Onoda said she had repeatedly called Takaichi on the phone asking her to reboot her account, but Takaichi was not initially enthusiastic about using the social media platform, out of concern that a single tweet is constrained to 140 characters and that her explanations of her policies might be misunderstood.

The former internal affairs minister now has over 217,700 followers on Twitter. Kono has the largest number of followers with 2.4 million, while Kishida has more than 60,500 followers and Noda has over 16,600 followers.

Takaichi’s support is also growing conservative local and prefectural assembly members, who are reaching out and asking rank-and-file members to support Takaichi, Onoda said.

“(Takaichi’s supporters) … have similar views on policies and are solid in their view of the state and history,” Kiuchi said. “Above all, (the winner) will be Japan’s 100th prime minister. I believe our unity is probably the strongest (among the candidates) because we hope to turn Takaichi into the Japanese (Margaret) Thatcher” — the British prime minister whom Takaichi reveres.

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