Japan's Suga faces challengers in ruling party leadership race
By Daniel Leussink and Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) -Japanese former foreign minister Fumio Kishida challenged Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday for the leadership of the ruling party, as the premier struggles with crumbling approval rates ahead of a general election.
Suga repeated that he would seek re-election in the Sept. 29 race for Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president, while ex-internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi also threw her hat in the ring. The winner is assured of being prime minister because of the LDP's majority in parliament's lower house.
"The people feel that their voices are not reaching the LDP," Kishida, 64, told a news conference.
"I am running ... to show that the LDP listens to the people and is a party that offers broad choices, and to protect our nation's democracy," said Kishida, adding he would aim for a more equitable, diverse society.
Suga, 72, took office last September with support of about 70% but his ratings have sunk below 30% as Japan battles its worst wave of COVID-19 infections and many of his LDP lawmakers fear for their seats.
LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who was key to Suga's victory last year, said on Wednesday he still backs the prime minister. The party's smallest faction, led by former cabinet minister Nobuteru Ishihara, was also lining up behind Suga, Jiji news agency reported.
Other party bosses, including former premier Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso, have not commented publicly.
Unlike last year, grass-roots LDP members will vote along with the party's members of parliament, which could make the outcome harder to predict. And novice MPs, fearful of losing their seats, may be wary of following their elders' orders.
Kishida, a soft-spoken lawmaker from Hiroshima, had been seen as the preferred heir to Abe, who stepped down last year as prime minister citing ill health.
But Kishida lost the ensuing party poll after factions coalesced around Suga, who had been Abe's right-hand man for eight years.
LOW POPULARITY RANKING
The low-key Kishida ranks low in surveys of voters' preferred next prime minister, well below other possible rivals such as Administrative Reform Minister Taro Kono, who is leading Japan's vaccination rollout, and former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba.
"Unless they chose someone like Ishiba who is more popular with the public, it will be hard to recover lost support," said Hiroyoshi Sunakawa, a professor at Tokyo's Rikkyo University.
Takaichi, a conservative Abe disciple, is seen as a long-shot to become Japan's first female premier.
Multiple candidates could make the LDP race more interesting but likely would not change Japan's leadership, said Hiroyuki Ueno, senior strategist at Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Asset Management.
"My sense is, most people in markets expect Suga to win unless he decides to quit by himself," Ueno said.
Suga had hoped to call a general election in September after hosting the Olympics, but a spike in COVID-19 cases upended that scenario. The lower house poll, which must be held by Nov. 28, will be held in October or later, the Sankei newspaper said on Thursday.
The LDP-led coalition is not expected to lose its majority in the powerful lower house, but forecasts suggest that Suga's party could lose the majority that it holds on its own, an outcome that would weaken whoever is leading the LDP.
Suga's pandemic response suffered another setback after Moderna Inc said it has withheld 1.63 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine in Japan after a report of contamination.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski, Linda Sieg and Hideyuki Sano; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and William Mallard)
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