Japan's ruling party gathered Monday to elect Taro Aso as prime minister with the task of turning the country round from the brink of recession and toward risky general elections.
Aso, 68, an outspoken and conservative former foreign minister who supports public spending to revive Asia's largest economy, is bidding to replace Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda who stepped down amid plunging approval ratings.
Although the overwhelming favourite, Aso is one of a record field of five candidates standing for the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan almost continuously since 1955.
Japanese media predicted that Aso, a flamboyant campaigner fond of quoting comic books, would easily win when LDP lawmakers meet at 2:00pm (0500 GMT).
But whoever is the next premier is thought likely to take advantage of the moment to call snap general elections -- possibly for as early as late October -- in the hope of thwarting an increasingly popular opposition.
The other candidates include former defence minister Yuriko Koike, who is seeking to become Japan's first female prime minister and has pledged to bring in free-market reforms.
Lawmakers were to huddle at party headquarters in central Tokyo where giant portraits of past LDP leaders adorn the walls. Regional chapters have already sent in their votes.
Although the vote is technically for the LDP presidency, the winner is all but assured of becoming premier due to the party's majority in the lower house of parliament.
Aso at a debate last week did not shy away from calling himself a hawk, but insisted he would not stir up historical tensions with China and South Korea.
"I'm a hawk in the sense that I'm resolved to sacrifice myself for Japan's role in bringing peace and stability and to protect the national interest," he said.
Media projections said Aso would win in the first round of voting.
The winner needs a majority of a total of 527 votes to be cast -- 386 by members of parliament and 141 by members of regional chapters.
Aso has already won 90 votes from regional chapters, according to polls by the best-selling Yomiuri Shimbun and other media, who suggested 60 percent of lawmakers would also vote for him.
The new premier is expected to be installed by parliament on Wednesday.
Aso is seen as strong in struggling rural areas as he has promised to use public money to stimulate the economy, a break from a long push in the LDP for free-market reforms.
Rivals have accused Aso of putting Japan's ailing finances further at risk, and popular former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who championed economic reforms during his 2001-2006 tenure, has openly backed rival Koike.
General elections must be held by September next year, but calling a snap poll would be a risky strategy for the LDP.
The party last year for the first time lost control of the upper house of parliament, and the Fukuda government's approval rating last week stood at a mere 15.6 percent.
His popularity plunged after he raised medical costs for the elderly, whose growing number is badly straining public finances.
The opposition has promised to scrap the medical plan and Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe hinted recently that Aso would do so as well.
At its own convention Sunday, the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan gave another two-year term to its leader Ichiro Ozawa, 66, a veteran political tactician who stormed out of the LDP in 1993.
Ozawa vowed to become prime minister and called upcoming elections a "last chance" for Japan to change.
Aso's other rivals in the LDP include Kaoru Yosano, who has accused him of risking Japan's long-term interests by wasteful spending. Japan has the worst public debt of any major economy.
News reports said Aso would keep Yosano in his job as fiscal and economic policy, hoping to ensure party unity ahead of elections.
Aso is also considering giving a cabinet post to another LDP rival, former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, the Yomiuri said.