Japan’s former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has won the governing party leadership election and is set to become the next prime minister.
Kishida replaces outgoing party leader Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is stepping down after serving only one year since taking office last September.
As new leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Kishida is certain to be elected the next prime minister on Monday in parliament, where his party and coalition partner control the house.
Kishida beat Taro Kono, the vaccinations minister, in a runoff after moving ahead of two female candidates Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda in the first round.
Japan's governing party vote to pick a new leader entered a second round Wednesday, with the presumed next prime minister facing imminent, crucial tasks such as addressing a pandemic-hit economy and ensuring a strong alliance with Washington amid growing regional security risks.
In the first round, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida came in first with 256, only one vote ahead of Taro Kono, the vaccinations minister, but failed to win a majority and moved to a runoff between the two.
Among the two female candidates, unusual for male-dominated Japanese politics, ultra-conservative Sanae Takaichi and liberal-leaning Seiko Noda won 188 votes and 63 votes respectively, dropping out of the race.
Kishida, who has more support from party heavyweights’ support, is believed to be in a better position than Kono in a runoff, which largely reflects a party power struggle.
The new leader also needs to change the party's high-handed reputation, worsened by the outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga who angered the public over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and insistence on holding the Olympics in Tokyo this past summer.
The long-ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party desperately needs to quickly turn around plunging public support ahead of lower house elections coming within two months, observers say.
Wednesday afternoon’s vote includes only LDP parliamentarians and grassroots members, and results will be known within hours. Whoever wins the LDP election will become prime minister because the party has control of parliament. The vote there is expected next Monday and the new prime minister would form a new Cabinet later that day.
At a Tokyo hotel, lawmakers cast their votes one by one in a ballot box on stage when their names were called.
Kono, known as something of a maverick and a reformist, supports eventually phasing out nuclear energy, while Kishida calls for growth and distribution under his “new capitalism,” saying Abe’s economic policy only benefited big companies. Takaichi, by far the most hawkish who wants greater military capability and spending, promised to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Noda pushed for women's rights and diversity.
Overall, little change is expected in key diplomatic and security policies under the new leader, said Yu Uchiyama, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo.
All of the candidates support close Japan-U.S. security ties and partnerships with other like-minded democracies in Asia and Europe, in part to counter China’s growing influence.
Analysts think Suga lost support because of party complacency and an increasingly high-handed approach forged during Abe’s long leadership.
Wednesday’s vote is seen as a test of whether the party can move out of Abe’s shadow. His influence in government and party affairs has largely muzzled diverse views and shifted the party to the right, experts say.