Japanese leadership ballot set to split ruling party

The Japanese Trade Minister Banri Kaieda has the lead in a ruling party race to pick the next prime minister, but a bruising run-off looks likely as chances of a majority win in a first-round vote are slim, media surveys showed yesterday.

Japan's sixth prime minister in five years faces huge challenges: a resurgent yen that threatens exports; forging a new energy policy while ending the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl; finding funds to rebuild from the devastating tsunami in March; and paying for the ballooning social-welfare costs of a fast-ageing society.

The obstacles to governing, including a divided parliament and internal party bickering, have raised concerns that the next premier, to be selected in a Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) vote today, will end up being another short-lived leader.

"Unfortunately, chances are that whoever wins, we'll be going through the same debate in 12 months," said Jesper Koll, director of equities research at JP Morgan in Tokyo.

Despite differences over policies, such as whether to raise taxes to pay for rebuilding, none of the five candidates has presented a detailed vision of how to end Japan's decades of stagnation and revitalise the world's third-biggest economy.

"Their positions already seem to have been watered down," Mr Koll said. The party leadership race has become a battle between allies and critics of party powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa, 69, a political mastermind who heads the DPJ's biggest group. Reuters