Japan’s vaccination minister Taro Kono leads polls in the race to become the next prime minister, after Yoshihide Suga announced on Friday that he was stepping down.

Former Defense Minister Kono is the favorite among Japanese voters – despite having not yet officially announced his candidacy – to become the next prime minister, TV Asahi announced on Monday.

Outgoing PM Suga announced on Friday that he will be stepping down from the premiership in September. The announcement came after amounting criticism regarding Suga’s handling of the pandemic, including his decision to host the Olympic Games, and only one year after assuming the position.

The public opinion polls suggest 58-year-old Kono’s support stands at 23% and another former defense minister, 64-year-old Shigeru Ishiba’s, is 21%. TV Asahi reported that Ishiba is considering backing Kono instead of running himself. If true, this would significantly increase the likelihood of Kono securing the top job, as the next most popular candidate is former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, whose support is polling at 12%.

Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving Japanese prime minister, ranks at 5%, followed by former Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi, whose support is polling at 3%. If successful, Takaichi would become Japan’s first female prime minister. Abe reportedly will be backing Takaichi if she runs to become leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

The late announcement by Suga creates a tense atmosphere in Japanese politics for the month of September. Each potential forerunner needs to gather 20 supporters by September 17 to become a formal candidate, with the vote set for September 29.

The LDP’s majority in parliament means its chosen leader is secured to become prime minister of Japan. The public does not have the opportunity to vote for the party leader.

A key factor in Kono’s popularity will be the outgoing prime minister’s heavily criticized handling of the pandemic. Kono is well-liked among young voters, and has over 2 million followers on his Japanese social media account.

Suga’s decision to proceed with hosting the 2020 Olympic Games fueled dissent, with over 450,000 signing an online petition to cancel the event due to health risks. While the games proceeded, the country had to enter extended lockdowns due to increasing numbers of positive Covid cases.

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