TOKYO – A close race was emerging for Japan’s ruling party to select a new leader to replace Prime Minister Naoto Kan, with five men declaring their candidacy today to compete in the weekend campaign.
Kan declared Friday that he would resign after nearly 15 months in office amid plunging approval ratings and political infighting within his own party and in parliament.
According to public opinion polls, the favorite to replace Kan is former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, but Trade and Economy Minister Banri Kaieda emerged as a strong contender after Japanese media reports said he had gained the support of veteran party power broker Ichiro Ozawa.
After the five candidates hold press conferences and debates today and Sunday, the Democratic Party of Japan’s 398 members of parliament will vote Monday to choose a new party chief, who will almost certainly become prime minister because of the party’s majority in the more powerful lower house.
Other candidates in the party leadership race include Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who has spent recent weeks contending with the yen’s record appreciation that is hurting Japan’s exporters, former Transport Minister Sumio Mabuchi and Farm Minister Michihiko Kano.
Kan’s successor will become Japan’s sixth prime minister in five years, perpetuating the high turnover in political leadership even as the country grapples with a sluggish economy, an aging population and the enormous reconstruction effort after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that also spawned a nuclear crisis.
The Japanese public has grown disgusted with the squabbles and blame-trading that has dominated parliamentary sessions.