Japan's ruling party on Tuesday kicked off the race to pick Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's successor, with his powerful right-hand man Yoshihide Suga commanding an all-but-insurmountable lead.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga, the 71-year-old son of a strawberry farmer, has already secured the support of major factions in the Liberal Democratic Party ahead of its leadership vote on September 14.
But he isn't running unchallenged, with a popular former defence minister and the party's policy chief standing against him.
Thanks to the LDP's solid legislative majority, the race's winner is certain to win a parliamentary vote on September 16 and be named the country's next prime minister.
The LDP race began after Abe, Japan's longest-serving premier, abruptly announced late August that he would resign for health reasons.
There is now speculation that the next prime minister may call a snap election to shore up public support.
But Suga hinted that an immediate general election would be unlikely, saying a new cabinet should make its top priority fighting the pandemic.
"What people most expect from the government is to curb infections and regain a secure way of life as soon as possible," Suga said at a press conference with his contenders.
Representatives for Suga and his rivals -- former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba and party policy chief Fumio Kishida -- formally registered their candidacies on Tuesday morning.
Suga said he had decided to run to help avoid a "political vacuum" after Abe's departure, and that he would prioritise coronavirus containment while rebuilding an economy now in recession.
Ishiba meanwhile pledged a "great reset", and said he would "pour my whole body and soul into regional revitalisation".
Kishida said he too would focus on balancing infection measures with kickstarting the economy, and vowed to build a capable team.
The candidates will hold two public debates before the vote, which will poll LDP lawmakers and three party representatives from each of Japan's 47 regions.
- 'A regular person like me' -
Whoever takes the top office will face a raft of challenges -- from the pandemic and a tanking economy to ensuring the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games can go ahead.
None of the three candidates is seen as offering a policy platform that would differ significantly from Abe's.
Former banker Ishiba, 63, is popular with the electorate and consistently topped polls before Abe's resignation.
A defence policy wonk, he supports strengthening the role of the country's Self-Defense Forces in the pacifist constitution.
But he is still regarded with suspicion by some in the LDP because he left the party for a time, serving as an independent and then with a rival party, before returning.
Kishida, also 63, was long viewed as Abe's heir apparent and considered the prime minister's favoured successor.
But he appeared to fall from grace more recently, with his proposal for a targeted stimulus being cast aside in favour of money for all residents, and Abe has declined to publicly support any one candidate.
Suga, who until recently denied any ambition for the top job, said he decided to run to continue Abe's programmes, especially his economic measures.
Raised in northern Japan's Akita region, Suga put himself through night college by working odd jobs before winning a Yokohama city council seat, and mentioned his background in his comments Tuesday.
"That a regular person like me can seek to become a prime minister, that's exactly Japan's democracy, isn't it?"
He has served as Abe's closest advisor and a powerful enforcer of government policy, considered able to bend Japan's vast bureaucracy to the government's will.
But while Abe rose to power by touting conservative policies including amending the constitution, little is known of Suga's ideology.
His policy interests tend towards the practical, including speeding up the digitalisation of government agencies, cutting the cost of mobile services and increasing foreign tourism.