The campaign to become Japan’s next prime minister has begun, with four candidates vying for the leadership of the ruling party in an unusually close race.
The candidates include two women who hope to lead a country that has never had a prime minister, although both are viewed as a long shot.
The race follows Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s shocking announcement last month that he would not run for the presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Whoever chooses the party in the September 29 vote will become prime minister and participate in the general elections to be held at the end of November.
Given that the LDP is expected to hold power, its leader is likely to be the person leading the world’s third-largest economy in the next few years, and it will face challenges from dealing with China to addressing climate change.
While outspoken vaccine chief Taro Kono leads public opinion polls on who should be Japan’s next leader, the result is far from clear because most of the party’s major factions do not endorse a candidate.
“In this race, since the factions don’t officially endorse anybody, it’s kind of a battle against everybody,” said Tobias Harris, principal investigator for Asia at the Center for American Progress.
“It’s hard to say that there is a true favorite.”
Kono’s main competition is expected to come from former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who heads a large faction of the LDP that will back him in the race.
The other two candidates in the race are vying to become Japan’s first female leader, but both the divisive right-wing Sanae Takaichi and former gender equality minister Seiko Noda are believed to be unlikely prospects.
The Sept. 29 vote will be two rounds, if necessary, with 383 lawmakers and an equal number of rank-and-file members voting in the first instance.
But the close race makes it unlikely that one candidate will win a majority. In that case, the first two go to a second round in which 383 legislators and a party representative from each of the 47 regions of Japan participate.
The race is unusually difficult to predict because factions that often vote as blocs, on this occasion, let their members vote however they want.
“The insiders are ultimately going to make or break the winner,” Harris said, adding that Kono’s popular support means he “probably has the upper hand, but if he has an upper hand, he’s very vulnerable.”
The race was thrown wide open after Suga, whose approval ratings have plummeted in part because of his government’s response to the pandemic, announced his resignation after just a year in the top job.
Suga took office in September 2020 after Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, resigned for health reasons.
Suga’s tenure has been marred by worsening waves of Covid infections and repeated rounds of restrictions, and the Tokyo Olympics failed to increase his popularity.
His short tenure has led some to wonder if Japan could return to the “revolving door” of leaders seen before Abe began his second term in 2012.
Since World War II, only five politicians have held onto the prime minister’s office for five years or more.