Colorful candidates awaken Japan’s sleepy politics as Abe eyes win in snap vote

TOKYO, Japan (AFP) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears poised to secure a fresh term at the helm of the world’s third-biggest economy this coming Sunday, as he seeks a mandate for his nationalist agenda and hardline stance on North Korea.

Surveys suggest Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is on track for a thumping victory over a weak and fractured opposition despite low popularity ratings for the prime minister and his government.

He stunned Japan last month by calling a snap election — more than a year early — although critics said the premier was trying to divert attention from a series of scandals that had hammered his approval ratings.

The election call transformed Japan’s sleepy political scene and from an opposition leader dubbed “Jack Bauer” to a gaffe-prone finance minister who referenced Adolf Hitler when talking about leaving a political legacy, the election has thrown up some colorful characters.

Here are Abe’s main challengers:

Yukio Edano

A twitter campaign at the time was set up to persuade him to get some rest, with people tweeting “Please Edano, go to bed” and some foreign media nicknaming him “Jack Bauer” — from the hit TV drama series “24” — for working around the clock.Edano, leader of the new center-left Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, won fame as chief cabinet secretary during the country’s 2011 tsunami disaster, briefing reporters every day, often at odd hours and earning respect for his work ethic.

Edano announced the launch of the new center-left party just days before the election campaign officially started, unleashing an attack on Shinzo Abe and vowing to stop what he described as the prime minister’s “abuse of power.”

Taro Aso

Finance minister and deputy prime minister, Aso is known for a long list of gaffes and controversial remarks during a nearly four-decade career in parliament.

Earlier this year, the 77-year-old came under fire for citing Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler in a bizarre reference about the importance of leaving a legacy in politics.

Last month he stirred controversy by saying Japan should seriously consider shooting down potential “armed refugees” if hundreds of thousands fled North Korea to Japan.Aso — whose previous comments include criticizing women who don’t have children and saying old people should “hurry up and die” to save healthcare costs — later retracted the comments but refused to quit.

It was unclear what he meant by “armed refugees.”

Aso served as prime minister from 2008 to 2009 before his Liberal Democratic Party was ousted from office.

He is the grandson of Shigeru Yoshida, one of Japan’s most influential prime ministers who helped rebuild the country from the ashes of World War II.

Shinjiro Koizumi

The telegenic and flamboyant Shinjiro Koizumi has drawn huge crowds to campaign rallies and has been suggested as a possible future leader.

Like his father, Koizumi Jr has a reputation for “one-phrase politics,” using a snappy slogan that resonates with grassroots voters.Dubbed by some media as “Japan’s Macron,” referring to France’s president, the 36-year-old has inherited the rhetorical skills of his father, the popular former leader Junichiro Koizumi.

A sweet bearing his likeness is the second-biggest selling souvenir in the parliament gift shop — behind sweets showing Abe’s face — store manager Shinzo Terada told AFP.

They are “particularly popular among women,” he revealed.

Mayuko Toyota

She has decided to run as an independent in this election, sparking considerable media attention.The 43-year-old Harvard graduate was once seen as an up-and-coming member of the ruling LDP but resigned in June after an audio tape emerged of her violently attacking a male secretary, reportedly threatening to crush his head with a lead pipe.

Every day, the very contrite Toyota goes to a railway station and bows deeply in apology to voters.

She has changed her image from a pink pantsuit — which earned her the nickname “pink monster” — to simple white and told supporters at a campaign rally that her heart was “on the verge of collapse” over the scandal.

Yuriko Koike

Even though she is not running for national office this time, the media-savvy veteran is definitely the story of the campaign, transforming the sleepy political landscape with her “Party of Hope.”

Posters of the popular Tokyo governor are everywhere and candidates for the party are pictured standing alongside the telegenic 65-year-old.

Her campaign video set the tone, with an elegant lady (presumed to be Koike) shoving her way past old men in suits and leading her supporters into the light.

But her momentum faltered after an initial burst of excitement as critics accused her of a dictatorial approach to managing her new party and she effectively split the opposition to Abe.

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