• Kyodo, Reuters


Vaccination minister Taro Kono is still the most popular choice among ruling Liberal Democratic Party rank-and-file members to be the next head of the LDP and hence Japan’s prime minister, a Kyodo News poll showed Sunday, ahead of the party’s presidential election later this week.

After incorporating LDP Diet members’ planned votes, however, none of the four candidates in the LDP leadership race is likely to win an overall majority vote in the first round, meaning the successor to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is expected to be determined in a runoff vote.

Among the rank-and-file voters, Kono gained 47.4% support, down 1.2 percentage points from the previous survey held earlier this month, and was followed by former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida at 22.4%, up 3.9 points.

Former communications minister Sanae Takaichi came third at 16.2% and Seiko Noda, the LDP’s executive acting secretary general, was at 3.4%, while 10.7% of the respondents said they have yet to decide who to vote for.

The party election will be held on Wednesday after Suga said earlier this month he will resign amid mounting criticism over his government’s coronavirus response.

In the first round of the election, each of the LDP’s 382 Diet members will cast a vote, and another 382 votes will be determined based on the preferences of some 1.1 million rank-and-file members. If no candidate secures an outright majority, a runoff will be held with votes from the 382 Diet members and each of the LDP’s 47 prefectural chapters.

Whoever wins will become prime minister when the Diet holds an extraordinary session from Oct. 4 as the LDP-led coalition holds a majority in both chambers of parliament.

Among the 382 LDP parliamentarians, Kyodo News found that Kishida was leading the race with more than 30% supporting him. Kono and Takaichi followed with more than 20%, but many were still undecided about their vote.

Converting the support rates to votes in accordance with LDP presidential election rules, Kono is set to secure more than 200 of the 382 rank-and-file votes. Kishida is expected to gain over 90 votes, Takaichi around 70 votes and Noda about 10 votes.

Asked about policy areas they hope the new leader will place priority, 30.2% mentioned economic policies, followed by 22.3% who said coronavirus responses, 15.4% for social security and 14.7% for diplomacy and security.

The race has introduced a rare dose of uncertainty into Japanese politics after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s nearly eight-year tenure that made him the country’s longest-serving leader. Abe ran uncontested in 2015 and roundly defeated his sole rival three years later.

Last year, LDP factions rallied around Suga after Abe quit, citing illhealth. But Suga’s voter ratings tanked over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting him to announce his departure ahead of a general election that must be held by Nov. 28.

“This time there is no bandwagon to jump on and factions are divided,” said Steven Reed, a professor emeritus at Chuo University. “That’s pretty rare.”

A win by Kono or Kishida is unlikely to trigger a huge shift in policies as Japan seeks to cope with an assertive China and revive an economy hit by the pandemic, but Kono’s push for renewable energy and to remove bureaucratic obstacles to reform have made him appealing to investors and business chiefs.

Both share a broad consensus on the need to beef up Japan’s defenses and strengthen security ties with Washington and other partners including the “Quad” grouping of Japan, the United States, Australia and India, while preserving vital economic ties with China and holding regular summit meetings.

“The consensus in Japan and the LDP is that to strike a balance between America and China, Japan must be tough on defense but maintain economic ties with China,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

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