Candidates to become Japan's next prime minister officially have launched their campaigns, with popular vaccine minister Taro Kono expected to be the top contender to replace Yoshihide Suga.
The leadership race for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took an unexpected turn two weeks ago when Suga said he would step down after only one year as prime minister, setting off a heated contest.
The winner of a September 29 LDP leadership election will become prime minister by virtue of the party's majority in the lower house of parliament.
The LDP's image has been battered by public perceptions that Suga bungled his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and are keen for a fresh face to carry them to victory in general elections expected within two months.
The race to be Japan's next leader is between four candidates.
The popular Kono, whose resume is studded with jobs including the foreign and defence portfolios, faces off against former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, who hails from the LDP's more dovish factions; Sanae Takaichi, an ex-internal affairs minister who is a disciple of former prime minister Shinzo Abe; and Seiko Noda, a former minister for gender equality and a long shot in the race.
Unlike in last year's LDP race, when Suga replaced Abe, grassroots LDP members will join MPs in casting ballots.
The race was officially launched by representatives of each contender registering their candidacies at LDP headquarters on Friday.
The media-savvy, US-educated Kono, at 58 on the younger side for a Japanese premier, is widely seen as the frontrunner due to his popularity with the public in opinion polls.
His chances were bolstered this week when LDP heavyweight Shigeru Ishiba, who is popular with the party rank and file, threw his support behind Kono.
Australian Associated Press