Tokyo (AFP) -
Japan's ruling party was picking its new leader Wednesday, with a mild-mannered former foreign minister and a Twitter-savvy vaccine chief battling to the final round in the race to become the country's next prime minister.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is going to the polls with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga opting not to stand, ending his tenure as premier after just a year in the role.
Whoever wins will be approved as prime minister by parliament within days, and will then contest general elections in which the LDP is expected to retain power.
The race to become the next leader of the world's third-largest economy is unusually tight this time around, in part because most of the party's powerful factions are not backing a candidate and their members will vote freely.
Four politicians threw their hats into the ring, two men and two women, another unusual turn of events in a country that has never had a woman prime minister and has few prominent female political figures.
But after a first-round vote, just two were left standing: former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, who lost out to Suga last year, and vaccine rollout chief Taro Kono, one of Japan's most recognisable politicians.
Their rivals, hawkish right-winger Sanae Takaichi and feminist former gender equality minister Seiko Noda did not advance beyond the first-round vote.
In the first round, Kishida secured just one vote more than Kono and was short of a majority, forcing a second round.
- Kono vs Kishida -
Administrative reform minister Kono is the public's favourite, reflecting in part his strong name recognition.
A former defence and foreign minister, he has been considered a likely candidate for the top job for years.
He favours a direct communication style that breaks from the cautious approach often preferred by Japanese politicians, and engages freely with the more than two million people who follow his Japanese Twitter account.
But he has also been described as abrasive and criticised for blocking people on Twitter and over allegations in tabloids that he bullied bureaucrats.
His main rival Kishida is a former foreign minister and LDP policy chief who has pledged more pandemic stimulus if elected.
Kishida has sought to capitalise on public discontent over Suga's response to the pandemic, which has seen his government's approval ratings slump to record lows.
He has emphasised his skill as a listener and invited citizens to share their requests and proposals with him, even toting a suggestion box and notebook to scribble ideas at events.
The son of a Hiroshima family of politicians, Kishida unsuccessfully ran for the leadership against Suga last year, and said the experience had made him more forceful and determined.
Whoever wins the race will face a plethora of challenges, from driving a post-pandemic economic recovery to confronting threats from North Korea and China.
Neither Kono nor Kishida is expected to radically reshape Japan's existing foreign, defence or economic policy, though the two men do differ on hot-button social issues.
Kono backs allowing married couples to have different surnames and supports legalisation of gay marriage, while Kishida has been more cautious on both subjects.
The next prime minister will also face questions about longevity, with Suga's one-year term reviving memories of a period where Japan shuffled through new premiers almost annually.
That era came to an end with Suga's predecessor Shinzo Abe, who became Japan's longest-serving prime minister.
But it remains to be seen whether Suga's predecessor will be able to consolidate the support needed to emulate Abe.