(Add the latest media poll)
By Ju-min Park and Leika Kihara
TOKYO, Sept. 18 (Reuters) – Two of the candidates vying for the next prime minister of Japan on Saturday denied toning down their positions on nuclear power and gender issues to gain Tory support in a close election to the leadership of the ruling party this month.
The winner of the September 29 contest to lead the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is almost certain to succeed Yoshihide Suga as the country’s next prime minister, as the party holds a majority in the lower house.
Suga announced he would step down two weeks ago as approval ratings dwindled, sparking a leadership race between four candidates.
They are Vaccine Minister Taro Kono, 58, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, 64, Sanae Takaichi, 60, former Minister of Home Affairs of the most conservative wing of the party, and Seiko Noda, 61, former Minister of Gender Equality.
Voter polls show Kono as their first choice, a key factor ahead of the general election slated for November.
But US-trained social media geek Kono, who also served as foreign and defense minister, is widely viewed as a maverick – an image that worries many veteran party members.
Candidates must attract votes from popular party members and young lawmakers, who are more likely to be influenced by popularity ratings, while also gaining support from party leaders who remain influential.
A Kyodo news agency poll showed on Saturday that 48.6% of grassroots party members polled supported Kono, followed by 18.5% Kishida, 15.7% Takaichi and 3.3% Noda.
Long regarded as a critic of nuclear power, Kono rejected the suggestion that he had flip-flopped on the issue.
“What I said about phasing out nuclear is to rapidly decommission nuclear power plants that are coming to retirement and gradually move out of nuclear,” he said in a televised debate .
âAs I explained earlier, we should stop using coal, increase energy savings and renewables and nuclear energy can be used to fill the void,â he added.
DIALOGUE WITH CHINA
Kishida, a more traditional LDP consensus builder struggling with a bland image, was asked if he had backed down to allow married couples to have separate last names.
Japanese law does not allow this option, and a change is strongly opposed by conservatives – including candidate Takaichi – on the grounds that it would undermine family values.
Asked how he felt he had previously fostered change, Kishida said he recognized the diversity, but questions remained about how to deal with children’s names in a new system.
âAt least given the broad understanding of the people, I think the discussion is needed now,â he said.
During a broad debate on topics ranging from COVID-19 to pensions and diplomacy, Kono called for dialogue with China amid growing concerns over its marine insurance – a position echoed by Kishida.
âSummit (Japan-China) meetings should take place regularly,â Kono said. “Perhaps we should tell the Chinese leadership to exercise their power as an actor of the international order, and not in the path of expansionism.”
Highlighting the predominant view emerging from politicians ahead of the general election, Kishida – considered the most hawkish on tax policy among the candidates – said he would not increase the sales tax rate for a period of time. decade and instead prioritize revitalizing the economy over tax reform.
The uncertain outcome of the PLD race contrasts with last year, when Suga quickly emerged as the leading contender after Shinzo Abe quit the cause of ill health after a nearly eight-year tenure that made him the longest-serving prime minister of Japan.
Party factions clustered around Suga, Abe’s longtime lieutenant, and base members had little voice. This time around, most factions are not unified and grassroots members will be given the same number of votes as lawmakers.
If no candidate gets a majority in the first round, a second round will take place and the base members’ votes will be diluted, potentially increasing Kishida’s odds against Kono.
Takaichi and Noda, both vying to become the country’s first female prime minister, are seen as long-term candidates, although Takaichi has the backing of Abe and other party conservatives. (Additional report by Kiyoshi Takenaka Writing by Linda Sieg Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Helen Popper)