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Japan election

Japan's ruling LDP leadership race opens with four candidates

11th-hour bid by Noda upends vote-counting math, making runoff more likely

LDP candidates in the leadership race, left to right: Taro Kono, Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda. 

TOKYO -- The campaign to lead Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party officially began Friday with four candidates -- two men and two women.

Standing are former foreign minister and LDP policy research chief Fumio Kishida; administrative reform minister Taro Kono, who also has held the foreign and defense chief posts; Sanae Takaichi, who has served as communications minister; and Seiko Noda, a former minister for internal affairs and communications.

Noda's 11th-hour bid announced Thursday makes this the first time that more than one female candidate has run for the leadership. No woman has led the party since it was founded in 1955.

The four candidates gave speeches at an event held by the LDP. Kono, who is the only incumbent minister among them, said that he has committed to "fight systems that interfere with new mechanisms," and pointed to some of his achievements, including overseeing a rapid nationwide COVID-19 vaccination drive and ending the requirement that documents at government offices be stamped with personal seals. "I want to demonstrate that if we proactively reach out for opportunities, we can grab them."

Kishida vowed to listen to the people, build a society that respects diversity and promote a mutually supportive society. In addition to promising to limit the terms of party officials to prevent the concentration of power, Kishida said he would shift Japan away from neoliberalism and ensure everyone benefits from economic growth. "The basis of conservative politics is the politics of tolerance," he said.

Takaichi, meanwhile, emphasized the need to invest in crisis management and growth. She said she would give top priority to the development of legal systems to minimize the risk of terrorism, cyberattacks and threats to Japan's security. "We will implement policies that contribute to building a sense of security for all generations. We will protect the lives and safety of the people," she said.

Noda, who called for a reevaluation of LDP policies, stressed the importance of building a more inclusive society, particularly for women, children, the elderly and disabled people. With Japan undergoing rapid depopulation, she outlined a plan to establish an agency dedicated to children, and promised that half the ministers in her cabinet would be women.

Unlike last year, when LDP insiders picked Yoshihide Suga to replace Shinzo Abe as party president, the current crowded field means the rank-and-file will have a say in who gets to head the LDP. The winner of the race will become prime minister because of the ruling coalition's majority in the lower house, and will take the party into a general election this autumn.

The LDP presidential race will count 383 votes from lawmakers in the Diet, as well as 383 other ballots from party members and supporters nationwide. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the two front-runners head into a runoff.

The two candidates in the runoff will fight for the same 383 Diet votes, plus 47 votes representing each of Japan's prefectures. Because rank-and-file party members will have less weight in the runoff, the support received by the likely third- or fourth-place candidate could be key to the outcome.

Six of the seven LDP factions have not thrown their weight behind a single candidate, muddying the alignment of party insiders. Noda, who does not belong to any faction, complicates the calculus further. Noda could also split the female votes, since she is up against Takaichi.

Though how the votes might break down remains unclear, candidates have already begun to run simulations on how they could potentially secure the LDP presidency.

The Kishida camp charted out a path to victory with roughly 40% of party member votes. Kishida would still need 230 votes from lawmakers under this scenario, and with 46 members in his faction, his backers are aggressively courting support from other corners of the party.

Kono, a top choice in opinion polls, aims to win about 60% of party member votes with the support of other popular party figures, like former Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi.

Abe on Thursday officially backed Takaichi on Twitter, writing that she "has proposed concrete policies to protect lives and livelihoods and to energize the economy amid the coronavirus."

Takaichi, who does not belong to an LDP faction, hopes that Abe's endorsement can win her more votes from party lawmakers.

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