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ReutersEconomy25 minutes ago (Sep 17, 2021 04:08AM ET)


© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Taro Kono, Japan’s vaccination programme chief and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker, attends a news conference as he announces his candidacy for the party’s presidential election in Tokyo, Japan, September 10, 2021. REUTERS/Issei


By Kiyoshi Takenaka and Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – Candidates to become Japan’s next prime minister officially started their campaigns on Friday, promising to restore popular trust in their party by tackling issues such as income disparities, the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

The leadership race for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took an unexpected turn two weeks ago when Yoshihide Suga said he would step down after only one year as prime minister, setting off a heated contest.

The winner of the Sept. 29 LDP leadership election will become prime minister by virtue of the party’s majority in the lower house of parliament, with vaccine minister Taro Kono widely seen as a leading contender.

The LDP’s image has been battered by public perceptions that Suga bungled the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and lawmakers are keen for a fresh face to carry them to victory in elections expected within two months.

Kono, whose previous jobs include the foreign and defence portfolios, faces off against former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi, who held the internal affairs ministry post, and Seiko Noda, a former minister for gender equality.

Unlike last year’s LDP race, when Suga replaced then prime minister Shinzo Abe, grassroots LDP members will join lawmakers in casting ballots, making broad popularity more important than usual in the faction-dominated party.

A common theme on Friday was fighting income disparity and regaining voter trust before the election, with candidates appearing to step back from the growth policies of Abe, known as “Abenomics,” which Suga continued.

“We shouldn’t have a pre-set idea on the size of any stimulus package. What’s important is to spend money on investment for the future,” Kono said. “Among them is to aid families with children.”

He added: “Abenomics caused big changes in the economy, but corporate profits did not lead to higher wages. We must shift our focus toward boosting household income, from corporate profits.”

The U.S.-educated Kono, at 58 is on the young side for a Japanese premier and is widely seen as frontrunner due to his popularity with the public, who regularly choose him as their favourite for prime minister. Investors have also recently warmed to Kono at Kishida’s expense.

His chances were bolstered this week when LDP heavyweight Shigeru Ishiba, who is popular with the party rank and file and had been considering his own candidacy, threw his support behind Kono.

But Kono has a reputation as a maverick, and party elders may favour the soft-spoken Kishida, 64, who hails from one of the party’s more dovish factions, due to perceptions he may be better than Kono at building consensus.

Kishida echoed Kono by pledging to ease income disparities, which he said the pandemic had worsened, reiterating that he would do this by building a new form of capitalism and redistributing more income to households. He has also proposed a a spending package of more than 30 trillion yen.

“But I think the biggest theme of the LDP election is restoring faith in the party,” he said.

Takaichi, 60, a disciple of Abe, Japan’s longest-serving premier, and a member of the LDP’s most conservative wing, said she would take up Abe’s goal of revising the pacifist constitution.

Abe publicly endorsed her on Twitter (NYSE:) on Thursday, praising her “determination to defend Japan’s sovereignty and her strong view of the nation”.

Noda, 61, who joined the race on Thursday after winning the support of the required 20 lawmakers, is seen as a long shot. She could have an impact on the race by making it harder for one candidate to win a majority in the first round.

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