Outcome uncertain as ruling party in Japan heads to vote for next prime minister

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* The new LDP leader will almost certainly be the next prime minister

* Four candidates in a tight race

* Kishida and Kono considered favorites

* Takaichi long shot to be the first female PM

By Linda Sieg

TOKYO, Sept. 27 (Reuters) – Japan’s ruling party votes Wednesday for the country’s next prime minister in an election that has become the most unpredictable race since Shinzo Abe made a surprise comeback nearly ‘a decade, beating a popular rival in a second round.

The winner of the September 29 competition to lead the conservative Liberal Democrats (LDP) is almost certain to succeed the unpopular Yoshihide Suga as prime minister because the party has a majority in the powerful lower house of parliament.

Popular Vaccine Minister Taro Kono, 58, former US-trained Defense and Foreign Minister considered a maverick, is running for top job; former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, a consensus maker struggling with a bland image; former home affairs minister Sanae Takaichi, 60, ultra-conservative; and Seiko Noda, 61, of the party’s waning liberal wing.

The race introduced a rare dose of uncertainty into Japanese politics following Abe’s nearly eight-year tenure that made him the country’s longest-serving prime minister. Abe went unchallenged in 2015 and beat his only rival three years later.

Last year, LDP factions rallied around Suga after Abe left, citing poor health. But Suga’s voters’ ratings have collapsed over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting him to announce his departure ahead of the general election due by November 28.

“This time, there is no moving train to jump on and the factions are divided,” said Steven Reed, professor emeritus at Chuo University. “It’s quite rare.”

Candidates must attract votes from grassroots PLD members and novice lawmakers, more likely to be swayed by popularity ratings, while wooing party leaders. But grassroots members will have less say if no candidate wins a majority and a second-round vote takes place between the top two candidates.

Public broadcaster NHK reported on Sunday that Kishida was leading among lawmakers and Kono, followed by Takaichi, among party members and a run-off was inevitable.

Neither Takaichi nor Noda, seeking to become Japan’s first female prime minister, were initially considered to have a chance. But analysts say support from Abe and grassroots conservatives has bolstered Takaichi’s chances, even if she stays far away.

SECURITY, ECONOMIC POLICIES

A victory for Kono or Kishida is unlikely to trigger a huge policy shift as Japan seeks to confront an assertive China and revive a pandemic-stricken economy, but Kono’s push for renewables and to remove bureaucratic obstacles to reform made it attractive to investors and business leaders.

Both share a broad consensus on the need to strengthen Japan’s defenses and strengthen security ties with Washington and other partners, including the QUAD group of Japan, the United States, Australia and the United States. India, while maintaining vital economic ties with China and holding regular summit meetings.

“The consensus in Japan and the PLD is that to strike a balance between America and China, Japan must be tough on defense but maintain economic ties with China,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, senior researcher at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

Takaichi has been more outspoken on burning issues such as acquiring the ability to strike enemy missile launchers. She also clarified that as prime minister, she would visit the Yasukuni Shrine for the War Dead, seen in Beijing and Seoul as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism. Kono said he wouldn’t.

Kono and Kishida pointed to the failure of Abe’s “Abenomics” mix of expansionary fiscal and monetary policies and a growth strategy to benefit households, but offered few details on how to correct the default, while Takaichi said modeled his “Sanaenomics” on that of his mentor. plans.

All candidates are expected to put on hold their efforts to redress Japan’s huge public debt while focusing on fiscal stimulus to revive the economy.

The candidates clashed over cultural values ​​as well, with Kono supporting legal changes to allow same-sex marriage and separate surnames for married couples, both anathema to conservatives like Takaichi. (Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Michael Perry)


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