TOKYO - The leadership contest to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is shaping up as a three-horse race, with other hopefuls falling by the wayside after the ruling Liberal Democratic Party opted for a scaled-down electoral process.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, 71, is the runaway favourite, having secured the backing of four major factions in the LDP. He is set to formally announce his candidacy on Wednesday (Sept 2).
Two other contenders - former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, 63, and former defence chief Shigeru Ishiba, 63 - on Tuesday announced their intention to contest the poll.
Mr Kishida, who now chairs the LDP Policy Research Council, touted his experience on both domestic issues and foreign affairs, saying that made him an all-rounded candidate.
Mr Ishiba, who is popular with the public for his empathetic demeanour, is seen as a renegade within the LDP for his unabashed criticism of Mr Abe.
He implied at a news conference that high-handed governance had led to a series of cronyism scandals and an impression that the government was in its own ivory tower.
"Politics that do not believe in the people cannot be trusted by the people," he said. "It is our sincere and humble responsibility to enact policies with the consensus and the empathy of the people."
Mr Ishiba is by far the public's favourite, outpolling Mr Suga in two media opinion surveys over the weekend by more than 10 percentage points each.
He is also popular among the 1.09 million rank-and-file LDP members, who will not get a chance to choose their leader in the election set to take place on September 14.
The LDP, in a meeting of its General Council, the highest permanent decision-making body in the party, favoured a streamlined contest to choose a successor to Mr Abe who will serve the remainder of the prime minister's term as LDP President, which will expire in September next year.
The party's 394 elected MPs in the Diet will get to cast their vote, along with three delegates from each of the 47 prefecture chapters.
This comes despite the lobbying by young LDP politicians, including Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, as well as Mr Kishida and Mr Ishiba, for a full vote.
Some local chapters, sensitive to a backlash, will hold primary elections to decide how to distribute their three votes, media reported.
LDP General Council Chairman Shunichi Suzuki told reporters that the party saw no choice but to adopt an emergency process so as not to leave a political vacuum, adding that the usual complete electoral process could take up to two months.
This was also necessary taking into consideration the health of Mr Abe, who abruptly quit last Friday over a flare-up of a chronic condition, he said.
Mr Suzuki noted that the prime minister is staying on until a successor can be found.
Several potential candidates threw in the towel on Tuesday following the party's decision. They included Defence Minister Taro Kono, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, as well as former internal affairs minister Seiko Noda and former defence chief Tomomi Inada.
The Nikkei reported that Mr Abe has tacitly nodded in favour of Mr Suga, who has been his trusted lieutenant since he became prime minister in December 2012. This is also despite Mr Abe's public backing previously for Mr Kishida as his ideal successor.
Dr Sota Kato, a research director at The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research think tank, told The Straits Times: "I think the game is over. One of the remaining questions is can Kishida and Ishiba maintain their face so that they can re-challenge perhaps next year."
Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano added: "Abe really does not want to have his legacy denied. He has been pushed to the corner by Covid-19 and by a series of scandals, but who better to defend this legacy and to carry on than Suga, who has been by Abe's side for the last eight years?"