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From COVID to China's rise, Japan needs more than a new leader

4-way ruling party race puts focus on crisis management

From left to right, administrative reform minister Taro Kono, former LDP policy research chief Fumio Kishida, and former interior ministers Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda are running to become the next president of the ruling party. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai) 

TOKYO -- The celebratory mood surrounding the Liberal Democratic Party presidential race stands in stark contrast to the gloom among the public facing pandemic-related restrictions.

The four-way race to choose Japan's next leader officially kicked off Friday. But the disconnect between LDP lawmakers and the public points to the cold truth that having a fresh face to lead the LDP alone will not help the nation overcome its myriad challenges, starting with the pandemic. 

With the vote less than two weeks away on Sept. 29, the campaign has already drawn heavy scrutiny as an unusually crowded field muddles forecasts. 

Outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had originally intended to seek reelection as party president this month. But he struggled to mount an effective coronavirus response, sending his cabinet approval rating into free fall and forcing him to step aside.

As of now, 19 of Japan's 47 prefectures, including Tokyo, remain in a COVID-19 state of emergency. 

Suga's struggle with the pandemic highlighted fundamental problems with Japan's governance, from difficulties with coordinating COVID-19 measures between siloed agencies to delayed digitization and an unclear division of roles between the central and lower levels of government.

The health ministry and other agencies were slow to respond even to orders from Suga himself. The vaccine rollout, considered a key step in bringing the pandemic under control, initially struggled to gain momentum. The central government, municipalities and the Japan Medical Association are still not fully on the same page on addressing inefficiencies in the health care system, including the allocation of hospital beds.

These medical and legal obstacles could not all have been overcome by the prime minister's force of will alone.

Particularly concerning is how many LDP lawmakers appear almost relieved as the party heads toward the presidential vote. They are hopeful that a new leader would automatically lift the cabinet's approval rating and provide a boost for the upcoming lower house election. 

Such an attitude could breed hubris within the ruling party and affect the next government's policies.

Such thinking pushes Japan's various domestic and foreign challenges aside and reduces the prime minister to a disposable figure who can easily be swapped out for the party's survival.

But only LDP lawmakers and members can vote in the party's leadership race, making the selection process a tempest in a teapot. Japan cannot afford to waste time on infighting within the ruling party as Japan faces a potential sixth wave of the coronavirus.

Japan will also need to craft effective foreign, security and trade strategies amid the growing rivalry between the U.S. and China. As official campaigning kicks into full gear, the public will be watching closely to see how the four candidates view the various crises facing the country and precisely how they plan to address them.

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