TOKYO (REUTERS) - Candidates who want to be Japan's next prime minister officially launched their campaigns on Friday (Sept 17), with popular vaccine minister Taro Kono expected to be the top contender to replace Mr Yoshihide Suga.
The leadership race for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took an unexpected turn two weeks ago when Mr Suga said he would step down, setting off a heated fight.
The winner of the Sept 29 election will become prime minister by virtue of the party's majority in the Lower House of Parliament.
The LDP's image has been battered by public perceptions that Mr Suga bungled his handling of Covid-19. After his one year in office, party members are keen for a fresh face to carry them to victory in a general election expected within two months.
The race to be Japan's next leader is between four candidates.
The popular Mr Kono, whose resume is studded with jobs, including the foreign and defence portfolios, faces off against former foreign minister Fumio Kishida; Ms Sanae Takaichi, who held the internal affairs ministry post; and Ms Seiko Noda, a former minister for gender equality.
Unlike in last year's race, grassroots LDP members will join lawmakers in casting ballots.
The media-savvy, US-educated Mr Kono, at 58 on the younger side for a Japanese premier, is widely seen as the front runner because of his popularity with members of the public, who regularly choose him as their favourite for prime minister.
Investors have also recently warmed to Mr Kono at Mr Kishida's expense. His chances were bolstered this week when LDP heavyweight Shigeru Ishiba, who is popular with the party rank and file and had been considering his own candidacy, threw his support behind Mr Kono.
But Mr Kono has a reputation as a maverick, and elders in the faction-ridden LDP may favour the soft-spoken Mr Kishida, 64, who hails from one of the party's more dovish factions, due to perceptions that he may be better than Mr Kono at building consensus.
Ms Takaichi, 60, who is aiming to become Japan's first female premier, is a disciple of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, Japan's longest-serving premier, and a member of the LDP's most conservative wing.
Ms Noda, 61, who joined the race on Thursday after winning the support of the required 20 lawmakers to throw her hat in the ring, is seen as a long shot. But she could have an outsize impact on the race by making it harder for one candidate to win a majority in the first round.
On economic policy, where Japan is struggling to recover from successive waves of the coronavirus, Mr Kono wants any further stimulus to prioritise renewable energy and expansion of 5G networks, while Mr Kishida says Japan should strive for a new form of capitalism to reduce income disparity.