Japan governing party begins race to pick Suga successor

APTOPIX Japan Politics

TOKYO (AP) — The race is on for the next Japanese prime minister.

Official election campaigning began Friday for the new head of Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party, who typically becomes the national leader because of the party's control over parliament.

Four candidates are competing in the Sept. 29 vote to replace outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who will quit when his term ends at the end of this month after serving only one year. He took over from predecessor Shinzo Abe.

Their policies largely focus on the pandemic and its economic fallout, and on the increasingly assertive role China is playing in regional affairs.

Taro Kono, currently the Cabinet minister in charge of vaccinations and a front-runner, said in his kickoff speech on Friday that he wants a society that people see as compassionate.

On foreign policy, Kono, who has served as foreign and defense ministers, said Japan and the international community should resolutely address Chinese attempts to change the status quo in the region and “let China know it has to pay a certain cost if it violates international rules.” He said, however, that Japan-China relations are not only about security.

Kono, considered a maverick in Japan’s conservative political culture, says he also seeks to reform his own party.

Suga later Friday said he wants Kono to be his successor. Suga handpicked him to help speed up vaccinations to achieve his ambitious goals of bolstering daily doses to above 1 million and possibly finish inoculating all those who wish to get their shots by October to early November.

“It is Minister Kono who made such plans under me and has achieved great results in the middle of a national crisis," Suga said. “Continuity is extremely important for COVID-19 measures. With that in mind, I support Mr. Kono.”

Support ratings for Suga and his government nosedived over his handling of the coronavirus and insistence on hosting the Olympics despite the pandemic, and the party is hoping that a new leader can bring it victory in general elections that must be held by late November.

Abe's long rule brought unusual political stability but also what critics described as an autocratic and ultra-nationalistic approach.

Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, considered a close contender with Kono, said he will listen to the voice of the people and “restore a sense of unity to this country divided by the coronavirus pandemic.” Once seen as a moderate, he has shifted to a security and diplomatic hawk as he seeks support from influential conservatives such as Abe.

Unusually for Japan, two women are competing in the race. The only other female challenger was in 2008, when Yuriko Koike, who is currently Tokyo governor, made a run.

Seiko Noda, who has served as postal and gender equality ministers and is seeking to become Japan’s first female leader, said the country's rapidly aging and declining population pose a serious security and economic threat because there won't be enough troops and police in coming decades. She has pledged to achieve a diverse and inclusive society.

Sanae Takaichi, who shares Abe's right-wing political views and historical revisionism, called for a stronger military. The former internal affairs minister said she wants ample government spending to create a “beautiful and strong Japan that grows."