TOKYO (AP) — The stakes are high as Japanese governing party members vote Wednesday for four candidates seeking to replace Yoshihide Suga as prime minister. The next leader must address a pandemic-battered economy, a newly empowered military operating in a dangerous neighborhood, crucial ties with an inward-focused ally, Washington, and tense security standoffs with an emboldened China and its ally North Korea.
For the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party that often chooses its leaders in backroom negotiations, this election promises to be wide open. Because of the party's control of parliament, its leader will become prime minister.
Whoever wins, the party desperately needs new ideas to quickly turn around plunging public support ahead of lower house elections coming within two months, observers say.
Unusually, two women — conservative Sanae Takaichi and more liberal Seiko Noda — are competing against front-running Taro Kono, the vaccinations minister, and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
Takaichi, with the crucial backing of Suga's predecessor, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose conservative vision and revisionist stance she supports, has risen fast, while Noda’s chances are fading.
Abe’s backing of Takaichi may be an attempt to improve the party’s sexist image and