Digitalisation minister backs Japan PM’s rival as fight for ruling party head heats up

Digitalisation minister backs Japan PM’s rival as fight for ruling party head heats up

September 2, 2021

By Antoni Slodkowski

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s minister for digital transformation is the first serving cabinet member to openly back the rival of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in the race for ruling party chief, as the battle heats up just weeks ahead of the general election.

Minister Takuya Hirai came out in support of the soft-spoken former foreign minister Fumio Kishida challenging Suga for the top job late on Wednesday in a TV appearance, saying had backed Kishida in the previous party leader contest last year.

The move marked another turn in the rollercoaster week that saw the unpopular Suga come to the brink of calling a snap election on Tuesday night, only to deny the reports by Wednesday morning after party grandees, including his powerful predecessor Shinzo Abe, intervened to stop him, local media said.

In a series of manoeuvres to cling on to his job, Suga is set to remove his unpopular long-term ally Toshihiro Nikai from a key ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) post. It is a part of a reshuffle expected next week which will likely bring several high-profile names to both party executive and Suga’s cabinet as the premier strives to shore up his support.

Kishida is due to speak at a news conference at 10:00 a.m. local time (1:00 GMT). The party leader contest is slated for Sept. 29. and the government is for now considering a plan to hold the general election on Oct. 17.

Kishida, a lawmaker from Hiroshima, had been seen as the preferred heir to Abe, who stepped down last year as prime minister citing ill health but remains influential in the party’s two largest factions and its conservative wing.

But Kishida lost the ensuing party poll after factions coalesced around Suga, who had been Abe’s right-hand man for eight years.

When launching his candidacy last week, Kishida said he’d aim to reduce income gaps and support the economically vulnerable such as workers in insecure jobs and women, an apparent effort to differentiate his stance from Suga, who has stressed self-reliance before public support.

The low-key Kishida, 64, has ranked low in surveys of voters’ preferred next prime minister.

Suga, 72, took office last September with support of about 70% but his ratings have sunk to record lows below 30% as Japan battles its worst wave of COVID-19 infections and many of his LDP lawmakers fear for their seats.

(Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Michael Perry)

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