Photo/Illutration Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister and policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, in September (The Asahi Shimbun)

Lawmakers sensing a rare opportunity for drastic change in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are scrambling to curry favor from colleagues so they can secure the minimum of 20 supporters required to enter the party presidential race later this month.

A crowded field emerged after the surprise announcement Sept. 3 by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to bow out after only a year in office. He had been plagued by abysmal public approval ratings over his handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

His predecessor as prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who still wields considerable clout in the party, indicated Sept. 3 he will back Sanae Takaichi, a former communications minister who has pledged to continue Abe's economic reforms if she wins with her program of "New Abenomics."

Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister and LDP secretary-general, met with Toshihiro Nikai, the current LDP secretary-general who also wields immense power, on Sept. 4 to seek his factional support. Ishiba ran against Suga in the last election.

Suga, 72, had said he would dump Nikai, 82, from the key executive post to help freshen up the party's image. Nikai was hugely instrumental in getting Suga elected a year ago.

The campaign for the LDP presidential election officially kicks off on Sept. 17 and voting is slated for Sept. 29.

So far, Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister and policy chief of the LDP who heads his own faction, is the only candidate who has cleared the hurdle.

On Sept. 4, Kishida held an online meeting with LDP members of the Okinawa prefectural assembly to discuss issues that were not disclosed, but presumably covered local anger over the huge U.S. military presence in the southernmost prefecture, in an attempt to woo votes from as many as rank-and-file party members as possible.

Their votes will be crucial in helping him win the leadership post as LDP local and prefectural branches will be allowed to vote. Kishida is favored by younger LDP lawmakers who feared they would lose their seats if Suga had decided to stay put.

“I will listen to what the public has to say, accepting that there is widespread distrust in politics these days and use their feedback to bring about a rebirth of the LDP,” Kishida said.

Abe, meantime, signaled to a senior official of the Hosoda faction--to which he belongs and which is the largest faction in the party--that he will back Takaichi, citing their shared perspectives of history, notably concerning wartime events in China and the Korean Peninsula, as well as conservative values.

Abe also called on the Hosoda faction to rally behind Takaichi because she does not belong to any LDP faction and desperately needs to gain the support of 20 lawmakers.

In the event she succeeds and goes on to win the party presidential race, she would become Japan's first female prime minister. Winning the leadership race automatically elevates the winner to prime minister because of the LDP's dominant number of seats in the Diet.

But Hakubun Shimomura, the current policy chief of the LDP and a member of the Hosoda faction, is also weighing whether to run. As of now, the Hosoda faction has not decided how to respond if his candidacy becomes official.

The ever-popular Taro Kono, the minister in charge of administrative reform, met Sept. 4 with several middle-ranking members of the Aso faction to which he belongs. The head of the faction, Taro Aso, who doubles as deputy prime minister and finance minister and is an Abe crony, gave the thumbs' up to Kono’s candidacy, saying, “At the end of the day, it will be up to him.”

Kono is moving quickly to secure the required supporters from younger members of other factions as well. It is unclear if the entire Aso faction will rally behind him as some ranking members apparently favor Kishida.

Another key point concerns the Nikai faction in terms of who it will finally back. Having played a pivotal role in the birth of the Suga administration last fall and endorsed Suga’s re-election in the party race, Nikai is still smarting from Suga's betrayal.

Nikai met with Ishiba in Tokyo on Sept. 4. Ishiba is presumed to have lobbied for Nikai’s support as his faction has only 17 members, himself included, and needs outside backers. However, some members are said to be leaning toward Kono as their pick for LDP president.

Seiko Noda, executive acting secretary-general of the LDP, conveyed her willingness to Nikai on Sept. 3 to run in the election.

She had to abandon her past attempts after failing to acquire the minimum of 20 supporters. The Nikai faction may allow its members to back multiple candidates, rather than endorsing a single individual, according to a source.