Shigeru Ishiba, a top politician in Japan’s ruling party, will not stand in the race to replace the prime minister and is set to back Taro Kono, NHK television said on Tuesday, boosting Kono’s chances of taking the premiership.
Ishiba’s popularity with grassroots members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) could prove a strong plus for Kono, who is already topping polls as the public’s favourite for the country’s next prime minister.
Only LDP lawmakers and rank-and-file party members will vote for the party head, but a looming general election means popular support will be a key factor in their decision making. The winner is virtually guaranteed the premiership due to the party’s majority in parliament.
Ishiba, 64, a veteran lawmaker and former defence minister, had been seen as a possible candidate to replace Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga after his surprise decision earlier this month to step down.
However, Ishiba had decided not to run and would instead support Kono, 58, the current vaccine minister who has long been considered a top contender to replace Suga, NHK said.
Two other candidates have also thrown their hats into the ring for the Sept. 29 vote, former foreign minister Fumio Kishida and former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi.
While party elders are wary of Kono because of his reputation as a maverick with a strong sense of self-belief, his popularity with voters means lawmakers worried about re-election may prove eager to have him as the face of the party. The LDP has faced growing dissatisfaction over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ishiba will formally report his decision to his political faction on Wednesday, media said.
Kono regularly leads polls of voters on who should succeed Suga. In a poll by the Asahi daily at the weekend, he was chosen by 33% of respondents, while 16% chose Ishiba and 14% Kishida.
A graduate of Georgetown University in Washington D.C. who is fluent in English, Kono has built a reputation as an able and savvy communicator through frequent, and unusually blunt, news conferences as well as a strong social media presence, both unusual in Japan’s staid and scripted political world.
He has Twitter feeds in English and Japanese – where he has 2.4 million followers – and recently added a third aimed at the LDP election that features a photo of an earnest Kono speaking in front of the Japanese flag and another of him kneeling on a floor to talk to people at an evacuation centre.