Yasuhiro Nakasone today virtually won his bid to become Japan's next prime minister by scoring a landslide victory in primary elections for president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
With almost all of the votes counted in the primary balloting, in which just over 1 million rank-and-file party members across the country were eligible to vote by mail, Nakasone collected more than twice as many votes as the nearest of his three rivals.
Nakasone, 64, who is director general of the government's Administrative Management Agency, won 58 percent of the 966,000 votes counted so far. Officials said that 93.16 percent of the eligible party members mailed in their ballots.
His closest pursuer, Toshio Komoto, director general of the Economic Planning Agency, had 27 percent of the vote; Shintaro Abe, minister of international trade and industry, 8 percent; and Ichiro Nakagawa, director general of the Science and Technology Agency, came in last with 7 percent and was therefore knocked out of the race.
For the past decade Nakasone has been widely viewed as a prime candidate for the premiership although his popularity within the LDP has suffered because some detractors accused him of opportunism.
Known for many years as a conservative nationalist and a hawk, he has more recently moderated his views and is expected to stress close ties with the United States as the leader of the business-oriented LDP.
Nakasone's victory capped a bruising, six-week struggle to name a successor to Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, who abruptly announced Oct. 12 that he planned to step down.
A new party leader will be chosen from among the top three primary vote-getters by LDP parliamentarians at a convention Thursday.
On Friday, the parliament -- known as the Diet -- will convene a special session to formally appoint the new prime minister.
Although the deputies in the Diet are not bound by the primary vote, Nakasone's landslide will virtually assure him the party's top spot and the premiership because he enjoys strong support from key parliamentary factions.
The primary elections are widely viewed as a bellwether of the relative clout of the aging leaders who control the party's feuding factions and have been elbowing for power since Suzuki announced he would step down.
The month-long primary campaign has been marked by widespread public apathy. The candidates stepped back from addressing issues of national interest while the party elders competed in marshaling their money- and vote-getting machinery behind their proteges at the precinct level. The Japanese press has been full of rumors of widespread influence-peddling and bribery.
Nakasone had been pegged as the front-runner because of the strong support of former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, who controls the party's largest faction and is reputed to have vast allegiances in the business establishment. Komoto, 71, is backed by the forces of Takeo Fukuda, another former prime minister who is a bitter foe of Tanaka. Abe and Nakagawa are two younger party leaders with smaller followings.
Under the LDP's complex system, the party's 421 Diet members, are not bound by the results of the primaries in electing their new president Thursday and will abide largely by the dictates of their factional bosses.
The Tanaka forces, who support Nakasone, are believed to control 240 votes in the Diet.
Friday's Diet session is expected to approve the new party leader as prime minister because of the LDP's absolute majority in both houses.
According to political analysts, the primary vote count is a crucial factor in determining the factional makeup, and thus the stability, of the next Cabinet. The Nakasone landslide will, they say, signal an indirect endorsement of Tanaka's influence by the party's rank and file. It will help strengthen Nakasone's mandate by freeing him to fill top party and Cabinet posts with senior politicians from the Tanaka camp.
The conservative LDP is a loose coalition of factions lined up behind aging party chieftains, and any prime minister is obliged to strike a delicate balance among representatives from contending groups in making key appointments.
Election analysts had said that even a poor showing by Nakasone in the primaries would have done little damage to his ultimate chances of being named to the top party and government posts. It would have forced him, however, to yield more prestigious posts in the party and Cabinet lineups to Fukuda's followers.