The new leader also needs to change the party’s strong reputation, which was exacerbated by outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga who angered the public over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his insistence on holding the Olympics in Tokyo last summer, the Associated Press reported.
Observers say the long-ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party desperately needs to quickly circumvent waning popular support ahead of the upcoming House elections in two months.
Wednesday afternoon voting includes only Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers and grassroots members, and results will be announced within hours. Whoever wins the Liberal Party elections becomes prime minister because the party controls Parliament. A vote is expected there next Monday and the new prime minister will form a new government later that day.
Taro Kono, Minister of Vaccinations, and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida are the top contenders, although two unusually contenders – ultra-conservative Sana Takaichi and liberal-leaning Seiko Noda.
Takaishi climbed to the competitive third option after gaining crucial support from Suga’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose conservative vision and revisionist stance support him.
In a Tokyo hotel, lawmakers cast their votes one by one at a ballot box on stage when their names were called.
If no one gets a majority in the first round of voting, which is likely because the top three candidates appear to have close support, the winner will be decided by a run-off mostly by lawmakers.
Kono, known as something of a dissident and reformist, supports the eventual phase-out of nuclear power, while Kishida advocates growth and distribution under “new capitalism,” saying that Abe’s economic policy has only benefited big business.
Takechi, by far the most hawkish who wants military capabilities and more spending, promises to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Noda pushes for women’s rights and diversity.
In general, little change in major diplomatic and security policies is expected under the new leader, said Yu Oshiyama, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.
All candidates support the close security ties between Japan and the United States and partnerships with other like-minded democracies in Asia and Europe, in part to counter China’s growing influence.
Analysts believe Suga lost support due to partisan complacency and the increasingly authoritarian approach that was forged during Abe’s long tenure.
Wednesday’s vote is seen as a test of whether the party can emerge from Abe’s shadow. Experts say his influence in government and party affairs has largely muzzled diverse views, and shifted the party to the right.
The party vote could end an era of extraordinary political stability and return Japan to “revolving door” leadership.
“The concern is not about individuals but about the stability of Japanese politics,” Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a telephone briefing Tuesday. “It comes down to whether we are entering a period in Japanese politics of instability and short-term premiership,” he said. “It makes it very difficult to move forward with the agenda.”
Kono is a public favorite but lacks strong support from conservative party heavyweights, which could qualify him as prime minister in the short term, while Kishida is seen as an option that could lead the government for a longer period.
He is leaving Suga just one year after taking office as a hitter for Abe, who abruptly resigned due to health issues, ending nearly eight years of his leadership, the longest in Japan’s constitutional history.