Japan is likely to have a new prime minister within weeks after the ruling Liberal Democratic party set a rapid timetable for replacing the departing Shinzo Abe.
In meetings over the weekend, party elders discussed plans to vote on Mr Abe’s replacement by the middle of September, with the electorate restricted to members of parliament and heads of regional party chapters. Since Mr Abe is leaving halfway through his term, party leaders can cite Covid-19 as the reason to adopt an emergency procedure.
A speedy selection process, avoiding a full vote of party members, will maximise the influence of Mr Abe and his allies, so increasing the chances of a successor who maintains the policies of Japan’s longest-serving leader.
As party grandees met to set the rules, the main candidates jostled for position in a weekend of frantic political activity as the LDP adjusts to the loss of a leader whose longevity has damped internal debate. Mr Abe, who has been prime minister for eight years, announced on Friday that he would step down for reasons of ill-health.
Two of the front-runners, ex-foreign minister Fumio Kishida and former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, both indicated they were likely to stand, along with Seiko Noda, a former minister of internal affairs.
Mr Ishiba, a rival to Mr Abe with strong support among party members but limited backing from MPs, demanded that the party conduct a full election. “It’s inconceivable to choose the party leader in an anti-democratic way,” he told reporters.
Meanwhile, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga — a powerful figure in Mr Abe’s government — fuelled speculation that he would stand with a long blog post about coronavirus that ended with a declaration that he would “fulfil my responsibilities with all my power”.
Mr Suga is regarded as a competent leader who could win support as the best candidate to tackle the pandemic but he does not have a factional power base in the LDP. In a sign of Mr Suga’s pivotal role in the contest, Mr Ishiba praised him as “the backbone of the government”.
Taro Aso, finance minister, reportedly told colleagues that he would not be a candidate, which could boost the chances of defence minister Taro Kono, a member of Mr Aso’s party faction. Mr Kono has given no immediate signal of his intentions but said it was important to reflect the voices of party members.
Mr Kono also won an important endorsement from Shinjiro Koizumi, the environment minister and son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. The younger Mr Koizumi said he would not be a candidate himself, but added: “If defence minister Kono stands, I would like to support him.”
If Ms Noda can get on the ballot, there will be at least one female candidate, but former defence minister Tomomi Inada — a conservative protégé of Mr Abe — hinted that she may stand as well. “It means a lot to have a woman showing she wants the leadership,” Ms Inada said.
Candidates must be nominated by at least 20 of the 396 Diet members in the LDP and need to secure an absolute majority of the electorate for victory. There are likely to be a number of candidates on the ballot, with the first round of voting indicating which contenders have the strength to win.