Kono seen as top contender as Japan PM race kicks off

Candidates to become Japan’s next prime minister officially launched their campaigns on Friday, with popular vaccine minister Taro Kono expected to be the top contender to replace Yoshihide Suga.

The leadership race for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took an unexpected turn two weeks ago when Suga said he would step down, after only one year as prime minister, setting off a heated contest.

The winner of a Sept. 29 LDP leadership election will become prime minister by virtue of the party’s majority in the lower house of parliament.

The LDP’s image has been battered by public perceptions that Suga bungled his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and are keen for a fresh face to carry them to victory in general elections expected within two months.

The race to be Japan’s next leader is between four candidates.

The popular Kono, whose resume is studded with jobs including the foreign and defence portfolios, faces off against former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi, who held the internal affairs ministry post, and Seiko Noda, a former minister for gender equality.

Unlike in last year’s LDP race, when Suga replaced then prime minister Shinzo Abe, grassroots LDP members will join lawmakers in casting ballots.

The race was officially launched by representatives of each contender registering their candidacies at LDP headquarters on Friday.

The media-savvy, U.S.-educated Kono, at 58 on the younger side for a Japanese premier, is widely seen as the frontrunner due to his popularity with the public, who regularly choose him as their favorite for prime minister. Investors have also recently warmed to Kono at Kishida’s expense.

His chances were bolstered this week when LDP heavyweight Shigeru Ishiba, who is popular with the party rank and file and had been considering his own candidacy, threw his support behind Kono.

But Kono has a reputation as a maverick, and elders in the faction-ridden LDP may favour the soft-spoken Kishida, 64, who hails from one of the party’s more dovish factions, due to perceptions he may be better than Kono at building consensus.

Takaichi, 60, is a disciple of former leader Abe, Japan’s longest-serving premier, and a member of the LDP’s most conservative wing. Abe publicly endorsed her on Twitter on Thursday night, praising her “determination to defend Japan’s sovereignty and her strong view of the nation” – a statement that drew scores of supportive comments.

Noda, 61, who joined the race on Thursday after winning the support of the required 20 lawmakers to throw her hat in the ring, is seen as a long shot. But she could have an outsized impact on the race by making it harder for one candidate to win a majority in the first round.

Kishida is likely to have an advantage in any run-off, since grassroots members won’t vote and factional pressures could come to the fore.

On economic policy, where Japan is struggling to recover from successive waves of the coronavirus, Kono wants any further stimulus to prioritize renewable energy and expansion of 5G networks, while Kishida says Japan should strive for a new form of capitalism to reduce income disparity. — Reuters

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