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The race to become leader of Japan’s ruling party and the next prime minister is too close to call ahead of next week’s party election. It is a rare moment of uncertainty after almost a decade during which Shinzō 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 almost eight years, Suga had proved a loyal lieutenant, perfecting the role of taciturn spokesperson in his daily encounters with the media.

Suga secured the backing of the major factions inside the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP). But after a year in which his approval ratings plummeted amid criticism of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic – failing even to capitalise on success for homegrown athletes at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics – the party that has governed Japan almost without interruption since the mid-1950s is divided over his replacement.

The winner of the 29 September poll of 383 lawmakers and an equal number of rank-and-file LDP members is practically assured of becoming prime minister given the party’s dominance of the lower house of parliament.

Days after the campaign officially opened, the election has become a two-horse race between Taro Kono, the popular vaccine minister, and Fumio Kishida, a quietly spoken former foreign minister whose reputation as a consensus builder could bring stability to the party after a year of turmoil.

While the inclusion of two women in the field has reignited a discussion about poor female representation in Japanese politics, neither has nearly enough support to become the country’s first female prime minister.

Seiko Noda is a former women’s empowerment minister who has campaigned on the themes of inclusivity and diversity, while Sanae Takaichi, a rightwing former internal affairs minister who was once photographed with a Japanese neo-Nazi, has vowed to create a “beautiful and strong Japan”.

The only other woman to run for the LDP leadership was the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, in 2008.

But it will be Kono, 58, or the 64-year-old Kishida who leads the LDP into the general election this autumn and attempts to win over voters angered by Suga’s incompetence and uncertainty about the world’s third-biggest economy as it emerges from the pandemic.

Kono, who was educated at Georgetown University and whose politician father, Yohei, famously issued a formal apology for Japan’s wartime use of sex slaves, has championed renewable energy and reform of the bureaucracy.

A fluent English speaker who is regarded as a maverick in Japan’s hidebound political world, Kono has attracted international headlines for insisting that foreign media organisations revert to the traditional word order when writing Japanese names, and for his attempts to wean digital-sceptic officials off fax machines.

In recent remarks, Kono said he supported legalising same-sex marriage and allowing women to retain their maiden names after marriage. Kishida, however, said he had “not yet reached the point” where he could back gay marriage.

While Abe has come out in support of his hawkish ally Takaichi, Suga has thrown his weight behind Kono, whom he praised for speeding up Japan’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout after a slow start earlier this year.

“It is [Kono] … who 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 am supporting Mr Kono.”

A weekend poll by the Kyodo news agency showed that 48.6% of grassroots LDP members supported Kono, followed by Kishida on 18.5%, with Takaichi on 15.7% and 3.3% for Noda.

Despite his support among the LDP rank and file and the wider 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 their members a free vote in the presidential race.

“Given that the factions aren’t endorsing anyone officially, it’s kind of a free-for-all,” said Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress. “It’s hard to say that there’s really a true frontrunner.”

If either Kono or Kishida fails to win a majority in the first round, they will face a runoff with only LDP MPs and a single party representative from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures allowed to vote – a development that could favour the latter as factional politics come back into play.

“Ordinarily, we should be focusing on the candidates, but in fact the key people are still the old guard who are trying to get their ‘children’ elected leader,” said the freelance journalist Tetsuo Suzuki, who has been covering Japanese politics for 40 years.

But, he added, “the LDP knows that it’s important to take the public’s views into account, so in a sense this will be a litmus test for the upcoming general election. The party can’t afford to embarrass itself [by voting on factional lines] and lose support among voters.”


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