TOKYO (AP) – Much is at stake as Japanese officials on Wednesday vote for four candidates to replace Yoshihide Suga as prime minister. The next head of state faces a pandemic-ridden economy, a newly empowered military operating in a dangerous neighborhood, with vital ties to an inward-looking ally Washington, and tense security issues with an emboldened China and its ally, North Korea.
For the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which often chooses its leaders in backroom negotiations, this election promises to be wide open. Because of the party’s control over parliament, its leader becomes prime minister.
Whoever wins, the party desperately needs fresh ideas to quickly reverse the plummeting public support ahead of the general election coming up within two months, observers say.
Unusually, two women – the conservative Sanae Takaichi and the more liberal Seiko Noda – are running against the top candidate Taro Kono, the vaccination minister, and the former foreign minister, Fumio Kishida.
Takaichi has risen rapidly with the crucial support of Suga’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose conservative vision and revisionist stance she supports, while Noda’s opportunities are dwindling.
Abe’s support for Takaichi could be an attempt to improve the party’s sexist image and divert voices from Kono, who is considered something of a loner and reformist, political observers say.
In the key diplomatic and security policy, little change is expected under the new leader, said Yu Uchiyama, professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.
All candidates support close Japanese-American security ties and partnerships with other like-minded democracies in Asia and Europe, in part to counter the growing influence of China.
Kono and Kishida are former top diplomats. You and Noda have emphasized the need for dialogue with China as an important neighbor and trading partner. All four candidates support the maintenance of close “practical ties” with Taiwan, the self-governing island China claims, and its intention to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc and other international organizations.
In a series of policy debates, the four candidates discussed diplomacy, economics, energy and defense, but also gender equality and sexual diversity, which the male-dominated Conservative Party has rarely discussed in the past.
The inclusion of gender and diversity signals that the party knows it cannot neglect the issues any further, said Ryosuke Nishida, professor of sociology and public policy at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
Only Takaichi is against changing a law that forces married couples to use only one last name – almost always that of the husband. She has also vowed to make official visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors those who died in World War II, including war criminals and is viewed by many in China and Korea as evidence of Japan’s lack of remorse for its acts of war.
The other candidates are likely to refrain from visiting Yasukuni because of the consequences in relations with China and South Korea.
Support for Suga’s government has been turned on its head by his handling of the coronavirus and his insistence on hosting the Tokyo Olympics during the pandemic. Some of his loss of support is also linked by analysts to the feeling of complacency and the party’s increasingly high-handed attitude that Abe had developed during his long leadership.
Wednesday’s vote is seen as a test of whether the party can step out of Abe’s shadow. Its influence in government and party affairs has largely muzzled different views and steadily pushed the party to the right, experts say.
“What is at stake is the state of democracy in Japan and whether or how the new leader is willing to listen to people’s voices and take them into account politically,” said Uchiyama. “Prime Minister Suga obviously had a problem communicating with the people and has not been accountable.”
Unlike the previous vote, when Suga’s pick was largely orchestrated by party leaders, Wednesday’s vote is more unpredictable as most factions allow free voting through their member legislatures, a rare move for the party.
Many general voters watch the party vote, and ruling party lawmakers, in turn, pay close attention to public opinion in order to be re-elected in the upcoming general election.
The party vote could end an era of unusual political stability – despite corruption scandals and strained security ties with China and Korea – and bring about a return to Japan’s “revolving door” leadership by short-lived prime ministers, starting with Suga.
Suga leaves just a year after taking office as a pub thug for Abe, who suddenly resigned due to health problems and ended his nearly eight-year term, the longest in Japanese constitutional history.
Approval ratings for Suga and his administration have rebounded slightly since his resignation in early September, when viral infections also slowed. The number of new cases every day fell to 2,129 on Sunday, about a tenth of the level in mid-August. Japan has recorded approximately 1.69 million cases and 17,500 deaths.
Much of the sharp decline in cases is attributed to vaccination progress; About 56% of the country is now fully vaccinated.
The government is expected to lift the month-long coronavirus emergency on September 30, and people look forward to getting back to their daily lives. Meanwhile, opposition parties have not been able to position themselves as a vehicle for sustainable change.
“Many people tend to respond to issues that directly affect their daily lives but pay little attention to political views and issues like national security,” said Nishida. “As soon as infections slow down, virus fears will quickly subside and even the Olympics will be fondly remembered.”