Japan’s ruling party is voting for a new leader who will almost certainly become the next prime minister, after incumbent Yoshihide Suga stepped down after just a year in the job.
Four candidates, including two women, are in the running in Wednesday’s vote to head the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and whoever wins will have to face a general election within weeks.
The frontrunners are Taro Kono, 58, the United States-educated vaccines minister who is seen as something of a maverick and has previously held the positions of defence and foreign minister, and Fumio Kishida, 64, a former foreign minister and a consensus-builder saddled with a bland image.
The other contenders are former Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi, 60, an ultra-conservative, and Seiko Noda, 61, from the party’s dwindling liberal wing.
Party legislators will begin voting at 1.00pm (04:00 GMT) at a Tokyo hotel. Results are scheduled to be announced at 2.20pm (05:20 GMT).
Polls show Kono is most popular among members of the public, but projections show Kono does not have the 383 votes needed for a majority.
That means the top two candidates will immediately go into a runoff vote in which the winner needs to secure 215 votes out of a total of 429 available.
In a runoff scenario, some projections favour Kishida because more conservative factions are expected to vote to block Kono.
The results of that vote are expected at approximately 3.40pm (06:40 GMT).
A win by either candidate is unlikely to trigger a huge shift in policies as Japan seeks to cope with an assertive China and revive an economy hit by the pandemic.
Kono, Kishida and Noda have stressed the need for dialogue with China as an important neighbour and trade partner, and all four candidates support maintaining close “practical ties” with Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as its own.
Takaichi, who is backed by Suga’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has been more outspoken on issues such as acquiring the ability to strike enemy missile launchers.
She has also made clear, that as prime minister, she would visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, seen in Beijing and Seoul as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism. Kono has said he would not.
The candidates have also clashed over cultural values, with Kono favouring legal changes to allow same-sex marriage and separate surnames for married couples, anathema to conservatives like Takaichi.
Noda, meanwhile, has pledged to aim for women to make up half her cabinet if elected, but she is seen as a long-shot time this time around.
The new party chief is expected to become the next prime minister as the LDP holds a majority in the parliament’s powerful lower house.
A general election must be held by November 28.
Unlike the previous vote, when Suga’s selection was largely a done-deal orchestrated by party leaders, the vote on Wednesday is more unpredictable, with most factions allowing free voting by their member legislators, a rare move for the party.
Many general voters are watching the party vote, and governing party legislators in turn are paying close attention to public opinion in their quest to be re-elected in the upcoming parliamentary poll.
Last year, the various factions of the ruling party rallied around Suga – the uncharismatic but loyal deputy to Abe who quit for health reasons after eight years in the job. Suga’s approval ratings plunged over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his determination to push ahead with the Olympic Games, and last month he announced his resignation.
Japan’s coronavirus-related state of emergency is due to be lifted on Friday after a sharp drop in daily cases and deaths. The country has been hit less severely by COVID-19 than many other countries, recording about 17,500 deaths in a population of 125 million, but the emergency rules have left many businesses struggling amid complaints of little help from the government.
On Tuesday, Suga said whoever replaces him would have plenty to keep them busy.
“I believe Japan stands at a crucial moment,” he said.
“There is a falling birth rate and a greying population. The security environment is rapidly changing. The new coronavirus has illuminated Japan’s lag in digitalisation.
“The next prime minister should be one who exercises their power … it’s important that the person is able to do their best under many different conditions.”