Five candidates lined up on Wednesday to become Japan's next prime minister, with former foreign minister Taro Aso the odds-on favourite to win the race and call a snap election soon.
The long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is hoping a vibrant debate, now focused on how to balance the need to boost Japan's stumbling economy while reining in a bulging public debt, will improve its standing with voters ahead of a general election that the new prime minister could well call in November.
The outspoken, manga comic-loving Aso, who tops voter and party surveys ahead of the Sept 22 LDP leadership poll, is touting the need for government spending and income and other tax cuts to boost an economy teetering on the edge of recession.
"Japan's economy needs three years to heal. I will rebuild it in a short-term, concentrated manner," Aso, 67, said in his policy platform. "What is needed now are reforms for the future. I will continue these resolutely."
Other candidates including Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano want to maintain a goal of balancing Japan's budget by 2012. But with an election looming, even staunch fiscal reformer Yosano has been softening his calls to raise the 5 per cent consumption tax to fund the growing social welfare costs of an ageing society.
"It would be impossible to greatly alter the tax system from next year," Yosano, 70,told a news conference on Tuesday.
When nominations closed on Wednesday, the other runners were former defence minister Yuriko Koike, 56, bidding to become Japan's first female premier, former transport minister Nobuteru Ishihara, 51, and another former defence minister, Shigeru Ishiba, 51.
PRELUDE TO ELECTION
The victor is almost certain to become Japan's 14th prime minister in two decades because of the LDP's majority in parliament's lower house.
With 67-year-old Aso's victory largely assured, analysts say the leadership race is intended mainly to repair the LDP's support among voters worried about a faltering economy and fed up with the ruling bloc after outgoing Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda abruptly quit, the second leader to do so in less than a year.
But while the LDP contest has given the party a boost in opinion polls so far, some question how long it will last.
"Media are effectively giving the LDP free publicity but the public aren't stupid, they're worried," said Soichi Tahara, host of a TV talk show and a veteran political commentator.
Fukuda, 72, threw in the towel in the face of political deadlock that stems from a divided parliament, where opposition parties control the upper house and can delay laws and stymie policies from security to pension and tax reform.
With Fukuda's voter support below 30 per cent, ruling coalition lawmakers had grown worried about letting him lead them into a lower house election that must come by September 2009.
Whoever wins the LDP contest will square off in an election with opposition Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa, who is betting his message of "the people's livelihood first" will resonate with voters worried about rising fuel and food prices and weary of the ruling party's half-century grip on power.
"I want by all means to win this election in order to protect the people's livelihoods and ensure that parliamentary democracy takes root," said Ozawa, who bolted the LDP 15 years ago, sparking a political upheaval that briefly ousted the long-ruling party.