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Japan’s popular vaccine minister Kono set to enter race for next leader

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September 10, 2021

By Antoni Slodkowski

TOKYO (Reuters) -Japan’s popular coronavirus vaccination minister, Taro Kono, is set to announce his candidacy on Friday to lead the ruling party and, by extension, become the next prime minister.

Kono becomes the third candidate to throw his hat in the ring for the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which opened up last week when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he would step down.

Kono appears to have an edge over former foreign minister Fumio Kishida and former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi in the race.

Nearly a third of respondents in a poll by major domestic media last week said the Georgetown University-educated Kono, 58, was the most suitable to succeed Suga.

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Kono said he had informed Suga of his intention to run, media said, several hours before a news conference at which he is set to make a formal announcement.

The winner of the Sept. 29 vote of grass-roots party members and its lawmakers is virtually assured the premiership because the LDP has a majority in parliament’s lower house.

The new leader will then steer the party in a lower house election that must be held by Nov. 28. Lawmakers are counting on the new leader to boost the party’s support after Suga’s ratings hit record lows.

Kishida is reasonably popular and can count on the support of his faction of the party, while Takaichi, hoping to become Japan’s first woman prime minister, has support on the party’s conservative flank, including that of influential former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

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One remaining question is whether former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, who is also well-liked among party members, will run on his own or back Kono.

While Suga’s support was undermined by his haphazard handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Kono, who has been in charge of a rocky vaccination rollout, has remained popular, particularly among younger voters.

That is partly thanks to his ability to reach out to the public through Twitter, where he has 2.3 million followers – a rarity in heavily scripted Japanese politics dominated by older men less adept with social media.

Some in the LDP feel Kono is too young, given the average age of prime ministers taking office since 2000 was about 62. Their concerns include his lone-wolf style in a system that runs on consensus, and an outspoken streak that can occasionally see him challenge the party line.

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Despite that reputation, Kono toed the line on Abe’s key policies when he served as both defence and foreign ministers in his cabinets.

He has differentiated his conservative stances from those of his father, former chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono, who authored a landmark 1993 apology to “comfort women”, a euphemism for women forced to work in Japan’s wartime military brothels.

Kono is due to announce his candidacy at 4 p.m. in Tokyo (7:00 GMT), according to his office.

(Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; editing by Jane Wardell, Robert Birsel)

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