TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has backed vaccine minister Taro Kono to succeed him as the country's 100th premier.
But sources cited by the media said Mr Suga's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, intends to endorse former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi to take over the top job and become the country's first female prime minister.
The moves come as the race to succeed Mr Suga intensified on Saturday (Sept 4), one day after his shock decision to bow out as LDP president. Due to the LDP's majority in both Chambers of the Diet, the LDP chief is usually picked as prime minister. The LDP is set to vote for a new leader on Sept 29 and the winner will also serve as the party's face going into a general election that is due by November.
Both Mr Suga, 72, and Mr Kono, 58, were elected from constituencies in Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo.
Both men see a problem with Japan's bureaucratic red tape, and Mr Suga had counted on Mr Kono's pedigree as a maverick reformist to overcome tall administrative hurdles over such issues as Covid-19 vaccinations.
"Responding to Covid-19 is not just about vaccines, but also about tackling necessary reforms," Mr Kono said on Friday. He is set to formally announce his candidacy next week.
Yet, Mr Abe, 66, and Ms Takaichi, 60, are closely aligned in their political beliefs.
Both are hawkish conservatives who see a revision of the pacifist Constitution as a key priority. Ms Takaichi has also said that she will continue visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine if she were to become prime minister.
Yet, first off the blocks in the leadership race was former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, 64, who was once promised support from Mr Abe in a leadership run when he served on Mr Abe's Cabinet.
On Thursday, Mr Kishida revealed his campaign policy platform that includes a massive Covid-19 relief package worth "tens of trillions of yen".
He promised to expand polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing and more aggressive contact tracing, to establish a health crisis management agency, as well as to promote the use of electronic "vaccine certificates".
These are areas where Mr Suga has not succeeded.
"There are many voices among the public that the government is not giving thorough explanations about its coronavirus response, and that it is too optimistic in grasping the situation," Mr Kishida said, also taking aim at Mr Suga's inability to communicate his ideas with the public.
"I'll scrupulously explain policies, as well as their necessity and the decision-making process behind them, to gain cooperation and understanding."
But there are questions as to whether Mr Kishida, who lost to Mr Suga last year in a battle to succeed Mr Abe, could have played his hand too early.
Mr Suga's government is set to announce next week an exit strategy for Covid-19. Among the measures being mooted is a plan to lift dine-in curfews and a ban on dine-in alcohol service even in emergency areas, if there is proof of vaccination.
This comes as half of Japan's residents have been fully inoculated against Covid-19. The country is set to reach Mr Suga's target of vaccinating all those who are willing within the next two months.
Still, Mr Suga's seismic decision to step down came as an abrupt reversal that comes days after insisting that he was "naturally" going to seek re-election.
Ms Takaichi took aim at what she called "appalling flip-flopping", and vowed to "fight to the end" in the leadership race.
She does not belong to any faction, and experts had wondered if she would be able to acquire the 20 signatures needed for candidacy. But Mr Abe's endorsement on Saturday will likely give her the push that she needs.
Three others have said they were considering a run for the top job.
Former defence chief Shigeru Ishiba, 64, whom Mr Suga wanted to tap as LDP secretary-general in a now-cancelled reshuffle of the top positions, is mulling over a run.
"I strongly feel that many people are wondering why lawmakers don't seem to understand what they are facing," he said. "We have a responsibility to answer to them."
LDP policy chief Hakubun Shimomura, a 67-year-old former education minister, also might re-enter the race after having been asked to drop out by Mr Suga during an earlier run for the presidency.
LDP chief deputy secretary-general Seiko Noda, 61, another former internal affairs minister, is also keen to contest the election.
While Mr Suga's decision to bow out threw the race wide open, Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, 40, who like Mr Suga and Mr Kono was elected in Kanagawa, said on Friday that it was a very gut-wrenching decision.
Mr Suga and Mr Koizumi, the son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, had met for five consecutive days of war-gaming meetings.
Fighting back tears, Mr Koizumi revealed that the decision did not come easy for Mr Suga, whose position had become a lot more vulnerable over the past week.
"There was a lot of criticism, but no government has worked harder and delivered more results within a year than Suga's," Mr Koizumi said. "If the incumbent runs and becomes worn out, then he may not get proper credit for his accomplishments."