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Japan ruling party sets date for leadership contest

August 26, 2021

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is facing competition within his party as he struggles with crumbling approval rates ahead of a general election.

Yoshihide Suga leaves the prime minister's official residence to go to the airport
Suga took office as prime minister last September with support of about 70% Image: Sadayuki Goto/AP/picture alliance

Japan's governing party on Thursday said members will vote to decide its leader on September 29. The winner will lead the party into the expected October election. 

The conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had appointed Yoshihide Suga leader after Shinzo Abe stepped down last year, citing poor health. Suga was a close ally of Abe.

Suga has faced intense criticism over his government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. His term expires at the end of September.

Suga said he planned to seek re-election to retain his post.

If he wins, he'll remain the country's premier because of the LDP's majority in the lower house of the parliament. 

Who are the main contenders?

Suga faces at least three leadership challengers, including former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, LDP policy chief Hakuban Shimomura and hawkish party member Sanae Takaichi. 

Takaichi had served in several Cabinet posts under Abe. Suga had defeated Kishida in last year's leadership contest.

This time, Suga's leadership test comes as his approval rating hovers below 32%, according to a poll conducted by the Kyodo news agency earlier this month. He had an approval rate of nearly 70% last September.

Still, Suga remains the most favored candidate to lead the party into the polls because he has the backing of the party's powerful secretary-general.

The LDP is also not expected to lose the parliamentary majority it holds as part of a coalition, with the opposition still unable to put up a united fight.

What is the COVID situation in Japan?

Japan has been battling the fifth wave of coronavirus. Nearly half of the country remains under tight emergency protocols to curb the spread of the disease.

Japan's slow pace of vaccination had frustrated the public initially, though the rollout has now picked up pace.

Around 43% of Japan's population has been fully vaccinated. However, Suga said he aims to vaccinate 60% of the population by the end of September. 

Japan suffered a blow to its vaccination campaign on Thursday as the Health Ministry rejected over a million doses of Moderna shots. Suga said the unfortunate news would have no bearing on the country's vaccination goals.

rm/fb (Reuters, AP)