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Japan's ruling party sets date for leadership vote, incumbent PM likely to face strong challenge

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Japan's Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, Japan, on August 25, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will hold a vote to choose its leader on September 29, with incumbent Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga expected to face strong opposition.

The LDP approved the date on Thursday morning, with a general meeting expected to approve the decision later in the day.

Suga, 72, took office last September after the then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quit, citing ill health. Suga's initially high ratings have fallen to below 30% since as Japan battles its worst wave of COVID-19 infections, according to a poll by the Kyodo news agency earlier this month.

The LDP members of the parliament and grassroots party members will vote in the leadership poll, officials said, as some in the party want to see Suga replaced before a general election expected in October or later. Suga, whose term as LDP president is set to expire on September 30, has already said he plans to seek re-election as the party leader.

The election, in which campaigning starts on September 17, is effectively a vote for deciding the country's leader as the LDP has the majority in the parliament's lower house.

Suga faces at least three leadership challengers, including former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, LDP policy chief Hakubun Shimomura, and hawkish party member Sanae Takaichi.

Despite the Suga government's weak standing, the LDP is not expected to lose the parliamentary majority it holds as part of a coalition, with the opposition fragmented and so far unable to pose a major challenge.

Japan is struggling through a record fifth wave of COVID-19 and has recorded around 15,500 deaths during the pandemic. Many areas of the country are currently under virus restrictions, and the measures have been in place in some areas for almost the entire year.

Japan, which had an initially slow vaccine rollout, has now accelerated the immunization program in response to the emergence of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, and nearly 43 percent of its population are now fully inoculated.

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