Japan's ruling party is to kick off a two-day campaign Saturday to choose a new leader for the disaster-hit nation, with trade and industry minister Banri Kaieda emerging as a strong contender.
Five candidates of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) have so far run for the party's leadership election on Monday to succeed Prime Minister Naoto Kan as the nation's sixth premier in five years.
The party has set a deadline of Saturday morning for candidates to come forward for what is expected to be a close race.
Kan announced his resignation on Friday after nearly 15 turbulent months in power, during which his response to the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear plant accident drew fierce criticism.
Through debates and speeches this weekend, the candidates will seek support of 398 DPJ lawmakers who can vote for a new party president to replace Kan. Parliament will then vote the leader in as PM on Tuesday.
Former foreign minister Seiji Maehara, who has topped the list of hopeful successors to Kan in opinion polls, and Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda were largely seen as pre-election favourites.
But Kaieda, who has led efforts to contain the nuclear crisis, leapt into the front row alongside them late on Friday after party kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa, who controls the DPJ's biggest faction, voiced support for him.
Ozawa, a divisive figure who faces a criminal trial over a donations scandal, leads up to 130 lawmakers, although he has lost his party membership following his indictment over the scandal.
"We need support of Ozawa at a time of crisis," Kaieda told reporters late Friday.
Kaieda, 62, a well-known economist before he turned to politics, also won support of former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, a close ally with Ozawa.
Kaieda came to be at odds with Kan, who made a policy shift away from nuclear power generation while Kaieda was trying to convince local governments to restart reactors that went offline after the disaster.
Maehara, 49, who stepped down as foreign minister in March over a donations row, could become the nation's youngest post-war prime minister. He is against raising taxes to ease Japan's fiscal woes.
Noda, 54, who recently courted controversy with statements supporting war criminals, has softened his earlier stance on hiking taxes.
The winner faces the unenviable task of overseeing Japan's biggest post-war reconstruction, resolving the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl 25 years ago, and shielding the economy from a soaring yen.
The new premier must also unite a divided parliament, decide on a new post-Fukushima energy policy and win market confidence that Japan can overcome a legislative quagmire to address the world's biggest debt mountain.
Graphic showing Japan's five most recent Prime Ministers. The winner of the country's premiership battle faces the unenviable task of overseeing Japan's biggest post-war reconstruction, resolving the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl 25 years ago, and shielding the economy from a soaring yen less