Japan's Cabinet has resigned en masse to clear the way for a ruling party vote to select a successor to former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned two days earlier.
Members of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will meet later on Friday to pick a new party chief, who will almost certainly be installed as prime minister because the ruling party controls a majority in the more powerful lower house of parliament.
Former Finance Minister Naoto Kan, a straight-talker with activist roots, is widely expected to succeed Mr Hatoyama, who quit amid plunging approval ratings and public disappointment over his broken campaign promises.
The other candidate is little-known Shinji Tarutoko, chairman of the party's environmental committee, who has the backing of some younger party members and the largest faction led by the party's No 2, who also stepped down on Wednesday.
Whoever wins the top job will face daunting choices in how to lead the world's second-largest economy - which is burdened with massive public debt, a sluggish economy and an aging, shrinking population.
He also must quickly revive his party's tarnished image before upper house elections are held next month.
The vote is seen as a referendum on the Democrats' short rule since they defeated the long-ruling conservatives in lower house elections last August, and the party's prospects look rather bleak.
Mr Kan, 63, may be the DPJ's best hope for restoring confidence in its ability to govern and delivering a viable roadmap for the future. He is everything Mr Hatoyama was not - decisive, outspoken and a grassroots populist with common roots. Unlike recent prime ministers, he was not born into an elite political family.
Mr Kan gained popularity in 1996 as health minister when he exposed a government cover-up of HIV-tainted blood products that caused thousands of haemophilia patients to contract the virus that causes Aids.
He, along with Mr Hatoyama, was also one of several original members to launch the party that became the DPJ in September 1996 in a merger with several other small parties.
Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Transport Minister Seiji Maehara had been considered contenders for the party leadership, but they both announced support for Kan instead. After the DPJ selects its new leader, the parliament's two chambers will vote to install the new prime minister.