The race to become leader of Japan’s ruling party and the next prime minister is too close to call before next week’s party elections. It’s a rare moment of uncertainty after nearly a decade during which Shinzo Abe became the country’s longest-serving prime minister until he was replaced last year by his close ally Yoshihide Suga.
When Abe abruptly announced his resignation last August, citing the recurrence of a chronic health problem, the identity of his successor was never in doubt. As Abe’s chief cabinet secretary for nearly eight years, Suga had proven himself a loyal lieutenant, honing the role of taciturn spokesperson in his daily encounters with the media.
Suga secured the backing of the main factions within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (PLD). But after a year in which his approval ratings plummeted amid criticism for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, without even capitalizing on the success of local athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the party that has ruled Japan. almost without interruption since the mid-1950s he is divided over his replacement.
The winner of the Sept. 29 poll of 383 lawmakers and an equal number of rank-and-file members of the PLD is virtually assured of becoming prime minister given the party’s dominance in the lower house of parliament.
Days after the official opening of the campaign, the elections have turned into a two-horse race between Taro Kono, the popular vaccine minister, and Fumio Kishida, a quiet-spoken former foreign minister whose reputation as a consensus-builder could bring stability to the party after a year. of confusion.
While the inclusion of two women in the field has reignited a discussion about underrepresentation of women in Japanese politics, neither has enough support to become the country’s first female prime minister.
Seiko Noda is a former minister for women’s empowerment who has campaigned on the issues of inclusion and diversity, while Sanae Takaichi, a former right-wing internal affairs minister who was once photographed with a Japanese neo-Nazi, has vowed create a “beautiful and strong Japan”.
The only other woman to run for LDP leadership was Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike in 2008.
But it will be Kono, 58, or Kishida, 64, who leads the PLD in this fall’s general election and tries to win over voters angered by Suga’s incompetence and uncertainty about the world’s third-largest economy. as it emerges from the pandemic.
Kono, who was educated at Georgetown University and whose political father, Yohei, famously issued an apology for the use of sex slaves in Japan during the war, has championed renewable energy and bureaucratic reform.
Kono, a fluent English speaker who is considered a maverick in Japan’s closed political world, has drawn international headlines for insisting that foreign media organizations revert to the traditional word order when writing Japanese names, and for his attempts to divert skeptical digital officials from the fax. machines.
In recent comments, Kono said he supported legalizing same-sex marriage and allowing women to retain their maiden names after marriage. Kishida, however, said he “hadn’t gotten to the point yet” where he could endorse gay marriage.
While Abe has supported his ally Takaichi, Suga has supported Kono, whom he praised for speeding up the launch of the Covid-19 vaccine in Japan after a slow start earlier this year.
“Is [Kono] … Which achieved great results in the midst of a national crisis, ”Suga said. “Continuity is extremely important for Covid-19 measures. With that in mind, I support Mr. Kono. “
A weekend poll conducted by the Kyodo news agency showed that 48.6% of rank-and-file members of the LDP supported Kono, followed by Kishida with 18.5%, Takaichi with 15.7% and the 3.3% of Noda.
Despite his support among the rank and file of the LDP and the general Japanese public, Kono is not assured of victory now that most of the party’s factions, aware that a disenchanted public is preparing for a general election, have allowed its members a free vote in the presidential race.
“Since the factions are not officially endorsing anybody, it’s kind of a wrestling for everyone,” said Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress. “It’s hard to say that there really is a true favorite.”
If Kono or Kishida do not get a majority in the first round, they will face a second round and only the PLD deputies and a single representative from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures will be able to vote, a development that could favor the latter to as factional politics emerge. back in play.
“Normally we should focus on the candidates, but in fact the key people are still the old guard trying to get their ‘sons’ elected as the leader,” said freelance journalist Tetsuo Suzuki, who has been covering Japanese politics for 40 years. . years.
But, he added, “the PLD knows that it is important to take into account the opinions of the public, so that, in a sense, it will be a litmus test for the next general elections. The party cannot afford to embarrass itself [by voting on factional lines] and lose the support of the voters. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism