Tokyo: Japan’s ruling party voted Wednesday to elect the country’s next prime minister in what turned out to be the most unexpected race since Shinzo Abe made a surprise comeback nearly a decade ago by defeating a popular rival in a runoff.

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The winner of the September 29 contest to lead the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is almost certain to succeed the unpopular Yoshihide Suga as prime minister as the party has a majority in the powerful lower house of parliament.

Running for the top post is popular vaccine minister Taro Kono, 58, a US-educated former defense and foreign minister seen as a tramp; Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, a consensus-builder, saddled with a hazy image; former interior minister Sane Takachi, 60, an ultra-conservative; and Seiko Noda, 61, from the party’s dwindling liberal wing.

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The race has introduced a rare dose of uncertainty to Japanese politics after Abe’s nearly eight-year term, which made him the country’s longest-serving prime minister. Abe ran unopposed in 2015 and completely defeated his only opponent three years later.

Last year, LDP factions rallied against Suga after Abe left, citing ill-health. But Suga’s voter ratings increased his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting him to announce his departure ahead of the November 28 general election.

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“There’s no band-wagon to jump on this time and factions are divided,” said Steven Reid, professor emeritus at Chuo University. “It’s quite rare.”

Contenders need to attract votes from grassroots LDP members and rookie MPs, who are more likely to be influenced by popularity ratings, while also wooing party bosses. But if no candidate wins a majority and a second-round vote is held between the top two contenders, rank-and-file members will have little to say.

Public broadcaster NHK reported on Sunday that Kishida took the lead between lawmakers and Kono, followed by Takachi among party members, and that a runoff vote in the second round was inevitable.

Neither Takachi nor Noda, who aspired to become Japan’s first female prime minister, were initially seen as an opportunity. But analysts say the backing of Abe and core conservatives boosts Takachi’s prospects, albeit a long shot.

security, economic policies

Kono’s or Kishida’s victory is unlikely to lead to a drastic change in policies as Japan seeks to confront an assertive China and revive an economy hit by the pandemic, but Kono’s push for renewable energy and bureaucratic hurdles to reform To remove has made him attractive. For investors and business heads.

Both while preserving important economic ties with China and holding regular summits, bolstering Japan’s defense and security ties with Washington and other partners including the Quad Group of Japan, the United States, Australia and India. share a broad consensus on the need for

“There is a general consensus in Japan and the LDP that to strike a balance between the US and China, Japan should be tough on defense, but maintain economic ties with China,” said Suneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

Takachi has been more vocal on hotbutton issues such as gaining the ability to strike enemy missile launchers. She has also clarified that as prime minister, she will visit the Yasukuni Shrine for the Dead in War, which is seen in Beijing and Seoul as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism. Kono has said that he will not.

Kono and Kishida point to the failure of Abe’s signature “Abenomics”, a mix of expansionary fiscal and monetary policies and growth strategy to benefit households, but few specifics about how to correct the blame. while Takachi has modeled “Cenonomics” based on his mentor. plans.

All candidates are expected to make efforts to reduce Japan’s huge public debt while focusing on fiscal stimulus to revive the economy.

Candidates have also clashed over cultural values, with Kono supporting legal changes to allow same-sex marriage and different surnames for married couples, both of which are anathema to conservatives like Takachi.

(Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Michael Perry)