Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s possible successors

Japan’s ruling party said Wednesday it will vote September 14 on a replacement for outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is stepping down for health reasons.

The decision kicks off a leadership race in the world’s third-largest economy, with three leading candidates expected to face off in the poll:

Yoshihide Suga

Yoshihide Suga is the frontrunner after years as a close advisor to Abe and a powerful role overseeing policy.

His job as chief cabinet secretary involves coordinating between ministries and agencies, as well as being the government’s top spokesman.

While the role has been a stepping stone to the leadership in the past, 71-year-old Suga claimed repeatedly before Abe’s resignation that he was not interested in the top job.

A self-made lawmaker in a party of hereditary politicians, Suga was raised in northern Japan, the eldest son of a strawberry farmer.

He moved to the capital after high school and worked odd jobs to put himself through night college, before being elected in 1987 as a municipal assembly member in Yokohama outside Tokyo. He won a lower house seat in 1996.

The pragmatic politician is seen as a neutral figure within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. And while he does not command a faction within the party, several of its most powerful have thrown their support behind him.

Suga’s spokesman role has given him little chance to express his own views, but his somewhat anodyne image got a reboot last year when he announced the name of the new imperial era: Reiwa.

The image of him holding the hand-drawn calligraphy for the name earned him the affectionate nickname “Uncle Reiwa”.

Shigeru Ishiba

Former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba is the clear public favourite but faces an uphill struggle to win support within his own party.

A military expert with a quirky side — he is a self-confessed 1970s pop fan who has discussed the existence of aliens — Ishiba has made no secret of his interest in the top job.

Japan’s former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba./File | AFP

He challenged Abe for the leadership in the party’s 2018 contest, when he was handily defeated, but has long been mentioned as a potential successor.

The 63-year-old former banker is the scion of a political family and seen as a strong orator with significant experience — he entered parliament aged just 29.

Like Abe he is a defence hawk who wants to strengthen the role of the country’s Self-Defence Forces in the pacifist constitution.

He has served in several cabinet posts, but struggles with his outsider status within the LDP.

In 1993, he left the party, becoming an independent and then briefly joining another party before returning to the fold — a political dalliance many in the LDP have not forgiven.

Fumio Kishida

Fumio Kishida is often described as Abe’s preferred successor, but the soft-spoken 63-year-old appears to be struggling to capitalise on his heir-apparent status.

Japan’s former foreign minister Fumio Kishida./File | AFP

A political dove and former foreign minister, Kishida is currently the LDP’s policy chief and has made little secret of his ambitions for the highest political office.

He is a scion of a political family from Hiroshima and leads a major faction within the ruling party and is seen as a pair of safe hands.

Unlike some of his rivals for the top job, Kishida has never challenged the prime minister for the leadership, choosing to remain a loyal minister and aide on the understanding that he would eventually be endorsed by Abe.

But that does not appear to have panned out, with Abe saying he would not endorse any one candidate or otherwise influence the race to succeed him.

As a foreign minister between 2012-2017, Kishida dealt with several tough assignments, including negotiating accords with Russia and South Korea.

The highlight of Kishida’s tenure as the top diplomat was to accompany a 2016 trip by Barack Obama as he became the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima.

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