Japan's next PM needs to work fast on China, virus, and economy

There are many stakes as Japanese governing party members vote Wednesday to elect four candidates to replace Yoshihide Suga as prime minister. The next leader will need to address a devastated economy, a militarily empowered military operating in dangerous areas, vital ties with Washington and tensions with China and North Korea.

Japan's next PM needs to work fast on China, virus, and economy

This election promises to be wide-open for the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power since long. It often selects its leaders through backroom negotiations. The party controls parliament and its leader will be the prime minister.

Observers say that regardless of who wins, the party needs fresh ideas to turn around its declining public support in advance of the lower house elections within two months.

Two women, conservative Sanae Takaichi, and more liberal Seiko Nada, are running against Taro Kono (the vaccinations minister) and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishhida.

Takaichi has seen a rapid rise in popularity thanks to the support of Shinzo Abe (previous Prime Minister) who shares her conservative vision and revisionist stance. Noda's prospects are diminishing.

Political watchers believe that Abe backing Takaichi could be an attempt to boost the party's sexist image, and divert votes away from Kono, who is seen as a maverick reformist and a maverick.

Yu Uchiyama, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo, stated that little is expected to change in key security and diplomatic policies under the new leader.

All candidates support close Japan-U.S. Security ties and partnerships in Asia and Europe with like-minded democracies, in part to counter China’s growing influence.

Former top diplomats, Kono and Kishida were once. Noda and they both stressed the importance of dialogue with China as a significant neighbor and trade partner. All four candidates are in favor of maintaining close "practical relations" with Taiwan, the autonomous island China claims to be its own. They also support China's intention to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc as well as other international organizations.

The four candidates debated policy issues including energy, diplomacy and defense. However, they also discussed gender equality and diversity. This is something that the conservative male-dominated party has not discussed before.

Ryosuke Nisha, a professor of sociology at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, stated that inclusion of diversity and gender signals that the party is aware it can't ignore these issues.

Takaichi is the only person who opposes any change to a law that requires married couples to use one surname -- almost always their husband's. She has also pledged to visit Yasukuni Shrine to honor war criminals and World War II veterans. This shrine is seen by many in China, Koreas and China as proof of Japan’s lack of remorse for its wartime actions.

Because of the problems with South Korea and China, Yasukuni will likely be avoided by other candidates.

Suga's government suffered a decline in support due to his handling of coronavirus and insisting on the Tokyo Olympics being held during the pandemic. Analysts also link his decline in support to the party’s complacency and more high-handed approach developed during Abe's long years as leader.

Wednesday's vote will be a test to see if the party can break out of Abe’s shadow. Experts say that his influence in politics and party affairs has muzzled many views and steadily shifted party to the right.

Uchiyama stated that "What is at stake is Japan's democracy, and whether or not the new leader will listen to the people and take them into consideration for political consideration." "Prime Minister Suga clearly had problems communicating with the people, and he did not offer accountability."

The vote on Wednesday will be more unpredictable than the previous vote where Suga was selected largely by party leaders. Most factions will allow free voting by members lawmakers, which is a rare move by the party.

A lot of general voters are monitoring the party vote. The governing party legislators are also paying attention to public opinion as they try to win re-election in the next parliamentary election.

The party vote could bring an end to an era of unusual political stability, despite corruption scandals. It also may lead to a return Japan's "revolving doors" leadership by short-lived prime minsters.

Suga will be leaving Japan one year after he was appointed as Abe's pinch hitter. He suddenly resigned due to health issues, ending nearly eight years of his leadership, which is the longest period in Japan's constitution.

Since his resignation announcement in September, support ratings for Suga's government and his government have somewhat recovered. During the time when viral infections started to slow down, Suga's support ratings also improved. On Sunday, the number of daily new cases fell to 2,129, a drop that is about one-tenth of what it was in mid-August. Japan has had approximately 1.69 million deaths and 17.500 cases.

The sharp decline in cases can be attributed to the progress made in vaccination; approximately 56% of the country is now fully vaccinated.

People look forward to their normal lives after the government lifts the coronavirus emergency that has been in place for months. Opposition parties have, however, not been able position themselves as viable change agents.

Nishida stated that people react to problems that directly impact their lives, but are less attentive to political views or issues such as national security. "Virus fears will quickly fade once the infections slow down, and the Olympics will be well-remembered."