Candidates for Japan’s next prime minister officially opened their campaigns on Friday, promising to make the country more united by addressing issues such as income gaps, the coronavirus outbreak, and climate change.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) leadership race took an unexpected turn two weeks ago when Yoshihide Suga announced his resignation after only one year as prime minister, sparking a fierce 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, with popular vaccine minister Taro Kono widely seen as a leading contender.
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.
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 last year’s LDP race, when Suga replaced then prime minister Shinzo Abe, grassroots LDP members will join lawmakers in casting ballots, making broad popularity more important than usual in the faction-dominated party.
A common theme on Friday was overcoming national divisions, particularly income disparities, which have worsened under the pressure of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We shouldn’t have a pre-set idea on the size of any stimulus package. What’s important is to spend money on investment for the future,” Kono said. “Among them is to aid families with children.”
Referring to the growth policies of former leader Abe, continued by Suga, he added: “Abenomics caused big changes in the economy, but corporate profits did not lead to higher wages. We must shift our focus toward boosting household income, from corporate profits.”
The media-savvy, U.S.-educated Kono, at 58 is on the younger side for a Japanese premier and is widely seen as the frontrunner due to his popularity with the public, who regularly choose him as their favourite 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 party elders 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.
Kishida echoed Kono by pledging to ease income disparities through a new form of capitalism, a stance he has expressed before, noting the coronavirus has exaggerated economic difference.
Takaichi, 60, a disciple of Abe, Japan’s longest-serving premier, and a member of the LDP’s most conservative wing, said she would take up Abe’s goal of revising the pacifist constitution.
On Thursday, Abe openly endorsed her on Twitter, praising her “commitment to safeguard Japan’s sovereignty and her strong view of the nation,” a statement that received hundreds of positive replies.
Noda, 61, who entered the contest on Thursday after receiving the needed 20 legislators’ backing, is considered a long shot. She could, however, have a significant impact on the contest by making it more difficult for one candidate to achieve a majority in the first round.
Kishida is likely to have an advantage in any run-off since grassroots members are unlikely to vote and factional pressures may emerge.