Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Sunday he will run in the Liberal Democratic Party's leadership contest next month, setting the stage for an expected two-horse race with former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba.
"I am determined to hold the helm of Japan for three more years as LDP president and prime minister," Abe told reporters in Tarumizu, Kagoshima Prefecture. He spent the day visiting agricultural regions in Kyushu.
With official campaigning starting on Sept 7, the ruling party will hold the leadership election, which will effectively decide Japan's next prime minister, on Sept. 20.
Noting that the Abe-led LDP won a landslide victory in the House of Representatives election last October, Abe said, "It is my responsibility to live up to the public mandate."
As Japan will hold a series of major events, including the summit of the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies in Osaka in 2019 and the Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo in the following year, Abe expressed his readiness to lead the country beyond the current Heisei era, which will end next year.
Abe is predicted to win the LDP election as five of the seven intraparty factions, which encompass about 70 percent of party lawmakers, have expressed their readiness to back the incumbent leader.
In the LDP election, the contenders will seek to secure a majority from among the 405 votes by legislators and the same number by rank-and-file members. If no one wins a majority in the initial stage, a runoff will be held in which ballots by Diet members weigh more.
The 63-year-old Abe, who returned to power in December 2012, will become Japan's longest-serving prime minister if he wins the contest and secures another three-year tenure.
Ishiba, 61, who has assumed key posts such as minister in charge of regional revitalization and LDP secretary general under Abe, is seeking to broaden his support base among rank-and-file party members, who will also cast ballots in the September poll.
According to the latest Kyodo News opinion poll conducted over the weekend, 36.3 percent of respondents selected Abe as the most appropriate choice for LDP president, while 31.3 percent picked Ishiba. But it is unclear if the result reflected a trend among LDP members as the poll did not target only them.
The LDP leader is certain to become Japan's prime minister as the ruling party and its junior coalition partner Komeito hold a majority in both the upper and lower houses of the Diet.
The LDP will choose its leader through an election for the first time since 2012 after Abe was re-elected unopposed in 2015 when his term expired. Six years ago, Abe beat Ishiba in a runoff after coming second behind the same contender in the first round of voting.
In an apparent attempt to demonstrate his emphasis on rural areas outside Tokyo, Abe chose the city in Kagoshima as the place to officially declare his candidacy.
Now that Abe has officially thrown his hat into the ring, debates are set to start on various issues, including amendments to the Constitution, how to boost regional economies and an evaluation of Abe's handling of the government for the past five years and eight months.
The two rivals have different ideas on revisions to the supreme law, in particular its war-renouncing Article 9.
Abe has called for adding an explicit reference to the Self-Defense Forces so that they would not be deemed "unconstitutional" and said his party should submit constitutional revision proposals to an extraordinary Diet session expected to be convened in the fall.
But Ishiba has insisted amendments to Article 9 should not be rushed, citing a lack of public understanding of the issue. He instead stressed the urgency of changing the supreme law on points such as giving the government unilateral power to issue ordinances to deal with emergencies, including natural disasters.
On economic policies, Abe is expected to tout the achievements of his "Abenomics" economic policy package, including aggressive monetary easing by the Bank of Japan.
In a press conference Friday, Ishiba announced his pledges aimed at boosting Japan's regional economies, including transferring governmental ministries and agencies as well as large companies to local areas.