Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Picture: REUTERS/HIRO KOMAE
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Picture: REUTERS/HIRO KOMAE

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s surprise decision last week to effectively step down as premier by dropping out of a party leadership election has thrown open the race to replace him.

While Suga appointed no successor during his year-long tenure as premier, vaccine tsar Taro Kono has emerged as one of the most prominent members of his cabinet. Kono, who previously served as foreign minister and defence minister, plans to run in the September 29 election to replace Suga as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), broadcaster TBS reported on Friday. 

Fumio Kishida, another former foreign minister, is the only politician to have officially declared his candidacy in the LDP vote. Sanae Takaichi, a conservative closely aligned with former prime minister Shinzo Abe, is looking to soon join the race and vie to become the country’s first female premier, public broadcaster NHK reported.

Here is a look at the possible candidates:

Taro Kono, 58, administrative reform minister

Kono has been a favourite among business leaders to take over the prime minister’s job and, according to weekend polls by Kyodo News and the Yomiuri newspaper, was the public’s top pick to succeed Suga. He has advocated cuts in health and social security spending, which has ballooned as the population ages. 

He has started to collect endorsements from party members as he looks to take over leadership of the LDP, TBS reported without attribution. Though Kono is a member of an influential party faction led by finance minister Taro Aso, media including the Nikkei newspaper have said that Aso has not committed to providing him the group’s backing.

Kono, who is fluent in English, attended the private Suffield Academy boarding school in Connecticut before entering Georgetown University. He has become the country’s most-followed politician on Twitter and has found broad appeal with the younger generation, due in part to his attacks on antiquated practices such as the custom of hand-stamping official documents.

Fumio Kishida, 64, former foreign minister

A self-effacing former banker, Kishida, 64, lost to Suga in last year’s party leadership election. The prospect of him taking over this time was credited with helping to push the Topix gauge to a three-decade high Friday due to his vocal support for more stimulus.

Kishida said last week he wanted to spend tens of trillions of yen to soften the economic fallout from the pandemic and to compel people to co-operate with movement restrictions. Though he pledged to maintain fiscal and monetary policy for now, he said he would seek to return to fiscal balance after the Covid-19 crisis had normalised.

He has also vowed to tackle a shortage of hospital beds, a topic of emotional public debate because of reports of people dying at home from the coronavirus. 

Sanae Takaichi, 60, former internal affairs minister

Takaichi has been one of the most prominent women in the LDP for years, serving in the cabinet under Abe. She has drawn the ire of China and South Korea for her trips to the Yasukuni Shrine, which is seen as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism and honours 14 late leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals alongside other fallen. 

Abe, who heads one of the party’s biggest factions, plans to back Takaichi in the race, Kyodo News reported, citing sources close to the former prime minister. The Nikkei newspaper cited a faction executive as saying it would not be easy for the bloc to support Takaichi, given her low public approval.

Shigeru Ishiba, 64, former defence minister

Ishiba, a former defence minister, often ranks among the most popular choices for next prime minister in public opinion polls. He ran against Suga a year ago, but has not yet declared his candidacy this time around. 

He has backed economic policies seen as more populist than Suga’s and called for reinvigorating domestic demand, particularly in the regions, to spur growth rather than relying on foreign trade. On the international front, Ishiba has shown a conciliatory attitude towards China and expressed caution about changing the country’s pacifist constitution to clarify the military’s legal standing.

Dark horses

  • Seiko Noda, a former internal affairs minister, plans to run, according to broadcaster NTV, but has had trouble mustering support in the party.
  • LDP policy chief Hakubun Shimomura, who stepped aside when it looked like Suga was the strong favourite, may also revive his plans to run.
  • A comeback by Abe, who stepped down as prime minister a year ago because of health reasons, has been floated as a possibility. But there seems to be little appetite for the country’s longest-serving premier to return.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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