Japan’s ruling party is voting for a new leader who will almost certainly become the next prime minister, after incumbent Yoshihide Suga announced he was stepping down after just a year in the job.
None of the four candidates, who include two women, won a majority in Wednesday’s initial vote to head the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
A runoff will now be held between the top contenders, Fumio Kishida, 64, a former foreign minister and a consensus-builder saddled with a bland image, and Taro Kono, the 58-year-old vaccines minister who is seen as something of a maverick and who previously held the positions of defence and foreign minister.
Kishida got 256 votes, while Kono received 255.
The initial vote involved 382 LDP legislators and an equal number of rank-and-file party members.
The second round involves the legislators and one party representative from each of Japan’s 47 regions. The winner will need to secure 215 votes out of a total of 429 available.
While polls show Kono is most popular among members of the public, some projections favour Kishida in a run-off scenario because more conservative factions of the party are expected to vote to block Kono.
The results of that vote are expected at approximately 3.40pm (06:40 GMT).
Ahead of the vote, Kishida told reporters that he was “convinced” of his victory, while Kono said: “I’ve done what I should. I will now just wait for the verdict.”
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.
The other contenders in Wednesday’s vote were Sanae Takaichi, 60, an ultra-conservative former former internal affairs minister, and Seiko Noda, 61, from the party’s dwindling liberal wing.
Takaichi won 188 votes, while Noda won 63.
A win by either Kono or Kishida 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.
In the run-up to Wednesday’s vote, Kono, Kishida and Noda 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, had pledged to aim for women to make up half her cabinet if elected.
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.”