Japan: Four candidates in frame to replace Shinzo Abe as PM

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Opinion polls show former Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba is the most popular choice among the public to be Japan’s next prime minister, as four hopefuls jockey to succeed Shinzo Abe in a party leadership election expected to take place in mid-September.

Under Japan’s parliamentary system the leader of the ruling party will become the country’s next prime minister. A general election is not due until October next year.

Ishiba has about 34 percent of the public’s support, more than double the 14 percent for Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the second-most popular choice, a weekend Kyodo News survey showed.

Tokyo poll showed 63-year-old Ishiba with 28 percent support, followed by current Defence Minister Taro Kono with 15 percent. Suga was in fourth place with 11 percent, the poll showed.

The surveys highlight a split between public opinion and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party where factional support is crucial, and analysts say Ishiba has maintained few friends.

Suga – a longtime lieutenant of Abe’s in a key supporting role – is expected to get the backing of the faction led by LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and of other major factions, local media reported.

That would make it an uphill battle for Ishiba, a rare critic of Abe within the LDP who mounted an unsuccessful challenge against him in the party’s last leadership race in 2018.

Another potential candidate, LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, who was also foreign minister until 2017 and is said to be favoured by Abe, came in last place in both of the public opinion surveys.

Abe’s resignation announcement on Friday, citing the worsening of a chronic illness, set the stage for the leadership election. Public broadcaster NHK said the contest was likely to place around September 13 to 15. The party is expected to hold a meeting on Tuesday to finalise the date of the election with other Japanese media saying it would be held on September 14.

The LDP president is virtually assured of being prime minister because of the party’s majority in the lower house of parliament.

Brad Glosserman, deputy director of the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University, said Suga was the safe bet in terms of internal LDP dynamics, but might not be so appealing come election time. A general election must be held by late October 2021. “He doesn’t seem to have either the charisma or the vision to push Japan in a new direction. He seems to be the eternal Number Two – he delivers on promises made by his boss,” Glosserman said.

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