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TOKYO – The stakes are high as members of Japan’s ruling party vote on Wednesday for four candidates seeking to replace Yoshihide Suga as prime minister. The next leader must tackle an economy plagued by a pandemic, a newly empowered military operating in a dangerous neighborhood, crucial ties to an interior-centric ally Washington, and strained security dead ends with an emboldened China and its ally North Korea.

Whoever wins, the party is in desperate need of new ideas to quickly overthrow public support ahead of the lower house elections which will take place in two months, observers say.

Exceptionally, two women – the conservative Sanae Takaichi and the more liberal Seiko Noda – are in competition with the leader Taro Kono, the Minister of Immunization and the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida.

Takaichi, with the crucial support of Suga’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose conservative vision and revisionist stance she supports, has grown rapidly, as Noda’s chances fade.

Abe’s support for Takaichi could be an attempt to improve the party’s sexist image and hijack votes from Kono, seen as a maverick and reformer, according to political observers.

Few changes are expected in key diplomatic and security policies under the new ruler, said Yu Uchiyama, professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.

All of the candidates support close security ties between Japan and the United States and partnerships with other like-minded democracies in Asia and Europe, in part to counter China’s growing influence.

Kono and Kishida are former senior diplomats. They and Noda stressed the need for dialogue with China as an important neighbor and trading partner. The four candidates support maintaining close “practical ties” with Taiwan, the autonomous island that China claims to be its own, and its intention to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc and other international organizations.

In a series of political debates, the four candidates addressed issues of diplomacy, economics, energy and defense, but also gender equality and sexual diversity, including the male-dominated conservative party. has rarely addressed in the past.

The inclusion of gender and diversity indicates that the party knows it cannot continue to overlook issues, said Ryosuke Nishida, professor of sociology and public policy at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

Takaichi alone is opposed to changing a law that requires married couples to use only one last name – almost always that of the husband. She also pledged to make official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the dead of World War II, including war criminals, and is seen by many in China and Korea as proof of Japan’s lack of remorse for his actions in wartime.

Other candidates are expected to refrain from visiting Yasukuni due to the fallout in relations with China and South Korea.

Support for Suga’s government has delved into his handling of the coronavirus and his insistence on hosting the Tokyo Olympics during the pandemic. Part of his loss of support has also been linked by analysts to the party’s sense of complacency and the increasingly authoritarian approach forged over Abe’s long years of leadership.

Wednesday’s vote is seen as a test of whether the party can come out of Abe’s shadow. His influence in government and party affairs has largely muzzled diverse opinions and gradually shifted the party to the right, according to experts.

“What is at stake is the state of democracy in Japan, and whether or how the new leader is ready to listen to the voices of the people and take them into political consideration,” Uchiyama said. “Prime Minister Suga obviously had a problem with communicating with the population and was not accountable.”

Unlike the previous vote, when Suga’s selection was largely a fait accompli orchestrated by party leaders, Wednesday’s vote is more unpredictable, with most factions allowing free votes for their member MPs, a rare move for the left.

Many general voters watch the party vote, and ruling party lawmakers in turn pay close attention to public opinion in their quest to be re-elected in the next parliamentary elections.

The party’s vote could end an era of unusual political stability – despite corruption scandals and strained security ties with China and the Koreas – and bring a return to the leadership of Japan’s “revolving door”. short-lived prime ministers, starting with Suga.

Suga leaves just a year after taking office as a pinch hitter for Abe, who suddenly resigned over health concerns, ending his nearly eight years as the longest-running government leader. constitutional history of Japan.

Support ratings for Suga and his government have recovered slightly since announcing his resignation in early September, when viral infections also began to slow. The number of new daily cases fell to 2,129 on Sunday, about a tenth of the level in mid-August. Japan has recorded around 1.69 million cases and 17,500 deaths.

Much of the sharp decline in cases is attributed to advances in immunization; about 56% of the country has now been fully immunized.

The government is expected to lift the one-month coronavirus state of emergency on September 30, and people are eager to get back to their daily lives. Opposition parties, for their part, have not been able to position themselves as vectors of viable change.

“Many people tend to react to issues that directly affect their daily lives, but pay little attention to political views and issues like national security,” Nishida said. “Once the infections slow down, fears about the virus will quickly subside and even the Olympics will be remembered.”

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ABC News