Statistics are high as Japan ruling party members voted Wednesday for four candidates to replace Yoshihide Suga as prime minister. The next leader has to deal with the epidemic-stricken economy, the newly empowered military force operating in the danger zone, key ties with an internally focused partner, Washington, and strong security forces with China and its North Korean nation.
For the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which often chooses its leaders in the latter round, the election promises to be more open. As a result of the party’s management in parliament, its leader will be the prime minister.
Whoever wins, the party desperately needs new ideas to quickly turn to public support ahead of the by-elections in the next two months, observers said.
Unusually, two women – veteran Sanae Takaichi and free Seiko Noda – competed against Taro Kono, the immunization minister and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
Takaichi, with the significant support of his predecessor Suga, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, backed by his vision of independence and a state of the art, has risen sharply, while Noda’s chances are slim.
Abeichi’s support for Abe could be an attempt to improve the image of the sex party and to turn votes from Kono, seen as something maverick and to change the situation, say political analysts.
Little change is expected in key communications and security policies under the new leader, said Yu Uchiyama, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.
All candidates support close security ties with Japan-U and cooperation with other like-minded democracies in Asia and Europe, in part as a way to combat China’s growing influence.
Kono and Kishida are key lawyers. He and Noda emphasized the need to negotiate with China as an important neighbor and trade partner. All four candidates support maintaining a “working relationship” with Taiwan, an independent island claimed by China, with a view to joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership bloc and other international organizations.
In a series of policy debates, the four people discussed political, economic, power and defense talks, but also gender equality and gender diversity, which the male-dominated group had never discussed in the past.
The inclusion of gender symbols and diversity the group knows will not continue to ignore the issues, said Ryosuke Nishida, a sociologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
Takaichi alone opposes a change in the law that forces couples to use only one surname – almost always the husband’s. He also promised to officially visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the death of World War II, including war criminals, and is seen by many in China and Korea as evidence of Japan’s remorse for its military actions.
Some candidates are likely to stop visiting Yasukuni due to strained relations with China and South Korea.
Support for Suga’s government reflected how he treated the coronavirus and his persistence in hosting the Tokyo Olympics during the epidemic. Part of his loss of support was also linked to analysts and the team’s sense of satisfaction and the dramatic upsurge created during the long years of Abe’s leadership.
Wednesday’s vote is seen as a test of whether the party can get out of Abe’s shadow. His influence on government and party affairs faded various views and shifted the party to the right, experts said.
“What is at stake is the state of democracy in Japan, and if at all possible the new leader is willing to listen to the voices of the people and take care of them politically,” Uchiyama said. “Prime Minister Suga obviously had a problem communicating with the people and did not give any obligation to respond.”
Unlike the previous vote, where Suga’s election was a consensus on party leaders, Wednesday’s vote is unpredictable, as many parties allow free voting through their party members, an unusual party action.
The majority of voters are looking at the party’s vote, and the ruling party legislatures are paying close attention to public opinion in their efforts to be re-elected in the next parliamentary elections.
A party vote could end a period of extraordinary political stability – despite the scandals of corruption and strained security ties with China and Korea – and brought a return to Japan’s “circular door” leadership with a short-lived prime minister, beginning with Suga.
Suga leaves just a year after taking over as Abe’s pinch hitter, who abruptly resigned due to health problems, ending his nearly eight-year leadership, the longest in Japan’s constitutional history.
Suga and his government support levels have been slightly lower since his resignation was announced in early September, when viral infections also began to decline. The number of new daily cases dropped to 2,129 on Sunday, about one-tenth of the rate by mid-August. Japan has recorded an estimated 1.69 million cases and 17,500 deaths.
The sharp decline in cases is due to the progress of the vaccine; about 56% of the country is now completely vaccinated.
The government is expected to remove the critical coronavirus crisis on September 30, and people are eager to return to their daily lives. Opposition groups have not yet been able to put themselves in the shoes of those who will make the change.
“A lot of people tend to react to issues that directly affect their daily lives but they don’t pay much attention to political ideas and issues such as national security,” Nishida said. “When the infection progresses slowly, the fear of the virus will disappear quickly and the Olympics will be well remembered.”