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Japan election

Japan's Ishiba balks at running in party race, in boon for Kono

Ex-defense minister fails to gain traction as support grows for vaccine czar

Former Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba has run for Liberal Democratic Party leadership four times, all unsuccessfully.

TOKYO -- Former Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba has expressed reservations about running in this month's ruling party leadership election as party support grows for a rival, popular vaccination minister Taro Kono.

If Ishiba, once seen as a leading contender, skips the race, the Liberal Democratic Party election could become a three-horse race among Kono, former LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida and former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi.

"If I end up just participating in the race with no chance of winning, it will achieve nothing," Ishiba said in a television interview Monday night.

Kono in particular stands to benefit from the absence of Ishiba, who garners a similar level of public support in polling, as rank-and-file party members currently backing Ishiba could throw their weight behind Kono.

Asked whether supporting Kono was an option, Ishiba said that "it would be stranger if there weren't any" chance of his doing so, adding that the same is true of Kishida.

The winner will become Japan's next prime minister, since the LDP holds a majority in the lower house of parliament. He or she will face the challenge of leading the party to victory in the upcoming general election following the exit of unpopular Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Ishiba ranked second in a Nikkei poll asking about the best person to lead the LDP, following No. 1 pick Kono by tenths of a percentage point.

But Ishiba's prospects of securing support from fellow lawmakers look much dimmer. He was unable to garner the necessary 20 endorsements from within his own faction, forcing him to try to drum up support from elsewhere in the LDP, including Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai's faction.

"I've said I won't support Ishiba this time," a senior member of the former defense minister's faction said Monday. "If he forces himself to run now, he'll lose his chance for next time."

Masaaki Taira, a lower house lawmaker who is the Ishiba faction's public relations chief, told Ishiba on Sunday that he would back Kono.

Kono, despite his popularity, has critics.

"I don't understand how the minister in charge of vaccinations has such a good image when the vaccination campaign is one of the main reasons people have attacked Prime Minister Suga," former economic policy minister Akira Amari said Tuesday. Amari, a member of Kono's faction, has announced his support for Kishida.

If three or more candidates participate in the election and none wins a majority in the first round of voting, the race will proceed to a runoff, with the top contenders vying for votes from lawmakers and the LDP's 47 prefectural chapters.

Ishiba is a political foe of previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the de facto head of the LDP's largest faction, and Abe's longtime ally Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who leads the second-largest faction. The former defense minister may have concluded that his chances would be poor if the race came down to a runoff, in which lawmaker votes carry more weight. 

When Suga was still set to run for reelection, Ishiba had planned to sit out the race. Ishiba then left the door open for a run after Suga's announcement Friday that he would not seek another term. Ishiba said he would "consult with allies and come out with a decision at the appropriate time."

Ishiba has run for party leadership four times since 2008, most recently last year. After finishing third in the three-way race with Suga and Kishida, he stepped down as head of his faction and became an adviser.

In 2012, when the LDP was in the opposition, Ishiba placed first in the initial round but was defeated by Abe in the runoff. He challenged Abe again in 2018 and lost.

Ishiba, an 11-term lawmaker, also has served as agriculture minister as well as LDP secretary-general. He stepped down from the latter post in 2014 to become the country's first minister for regional revitalization under Abe, and formed his own party faction in 2015.

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