Japan’s ruling party elected former foreign minister Fumio Kishida its new leader on Wednesday, setting him on course to become the next prime minister of the world’s third-largest economy.

The soft-spoken centrist defeated popular vaccine chief Taro Kono in an unusually close race to succeed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is stepping down after just a year in office.

Kishida, 64, will be confirmed as the new premier in a vote in parliament on October 4 and will then lead the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) into general elections that must happen by November.

Speaking after his win, he called on members to “show the public that the LDP has been reborn, and appeal for their support.”

The scion of a political family from Hiroshima, Kishida has long targeted the prime minister’s office and ran unsuccessfully for party leader last year, losing out to Suga.

He became the first candidate to step into the race this time around and ran on a platform of pandemic stimulus while carrying a suggestion box to events to receive proposals from citizens.

“My skill is to really listen to people,” he said after his win Wednesday, promising to work for “a bright future for Japan”.
The race was a tight one, with Kishida edging Kono by just a single vote in the first round before taking the second with 257 votes to Kono’s 170.

Two other candidates, hawkish right-winger Sanae Takaichi and feminist former gender equality minister Seiko Noda, did not advance beyond the first-round vote.

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