(Bloomberg) -- The race for Japan’s next leader formally began Friday, with the newest candidate pledging cash handouts for workers and vowing to slash the number of seats in parliament.

Four veteran politicians laid out their platforms after registering for the Sept. 29 vote to lead the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, underscoring their differences in what has already become an unpredictable race. 

The winner will almost certainly become the country’s next prime minister, thanks to the LDP’s dominance in parliament. But that person will face a general election within weeks after becoming premier.

Former internal affairs minister Seiko Noda announced Thursday she had mustered the necessary 20 party backers to join the race, joining vaccine czar Taro Kono, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and another former internal affairs minister, Sanae Takaichi, on the ballot. 

One of the four will replace Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who earlier this month abandoned a plan to run for re-election, as his public support slumped amid criticism of his pandemic management. 

Noda said she wanted to provide a flat-rate handout to all working people. Takaichi said she favored 100,000 yen ($910) for low income households and Kishida said he would provide handouts for irregular workers and women. Kono entered the race saying he wanted to reorient economic strategy toward individuals and create a country where no one was left behind.

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Clashes of opinion over items ranging from nuclear power to inflation have come in contrast to last year’s LDP election, when Suga was swiftly installed by the party’s powerful factions following the sudden resignation of his former boss. 

This time the major groups within the LDP are set to allow a free vote. The result will be decided in a full election, giving an equal say to lawmakers and rank-and-file members -- with the two groups each having 383 votes. The new prime minister is expected to be installed by parliament on Oct. 4.

The 50% female slate is unprecedented in Japan, where no woman had managed to get her name on the leadership ballot since Yuriko Koike, now governor of Tokyo, became the first to do so in 2008.

An opinion poll by the Asahi newspaper on Sept. 11-12 found Kono was the most popular candidate among the public, with 33% of respondents supporting him. He was followed by former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba, who later decided not to run, on 16%, Kishida on 14%, Takaichi on 8% and Noda on 3%. 

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Kono has cast doubt on the feasibility of Japan reaching its 2% inflation target through monetary easing, while Takaichi has vowed to press on toward that goal. Kishida has pledged tens of trillions of yen in extra spending to help recover from the blow caused by Covid-19, and Noda said she would aim to halt the fall in population by supporting women and families. 

“The reason why I decided to run is because we must show the diversity of the LDP,” Noda said. 

If none of the four attract more than 50% of the votes, a run-off will be held between the top two candidates, with only LDP lawmakers entitled to vote.

A survey of the party’s lawmakers published by the Yomiuri newspaper Friday found Kishida and Kono even on 20% support, with Takaichi following on 15% and Noda at about 10%. About 40% of the lawmakers contacted said they were undecided, or didn’t respond, it said.

 

(Updates with details on policies.)

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