Former cabinet minister Yasuo Fukuda appears a shoo-in to become Japan's next prime minister after a poll showed on Tuesday that most rank-and-file supporters of the ruling party -- like lawmakers -- backed him for the job.
The 71-year-old has emerged as the clear frontrunner in a party leadership race against hawkish former foreign minister Taro Aso, 66, after conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suddenly announced his resignation last week.
The survey by the Sankei newspaper, taken over the weekend, showed that 60.2% of voters who support the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) favored Fukuda, seen by his fans as a moderate conservative who would bring political stability.
That was double the 29.8% backing for the outspoken Aso, who is presenting himself as the bold leader Japan needs in a crisis. Aso, however, refused to concede defeat.
"The battle is from here on in," he told reporters after making the rounds of party lawmakers. "I will fight on to the end, for the sake of the LDP and for the sake of Japan."
Ordinary Japanese voters have no direct say in the LDP poll of party chapters and lawmakers, to be held on Sept. 23.
But their opinions matter, since the next prime minister is likely to have to lead his party into a general election that must be held by late 2009 but could well come sooner, given a potential standoff in parliament with opposition parties, who control the upper house.
"This is not the last act, it's just a warm-up," said Jesper Koll, president of investment advisory group Tantallon Research Japan. "It will most likely be an interim government, and nobody quite knows what will happen after that."
Sankei's survey showed that among the general public, Fukuda -- son of a former prime minister who favors warmer ties with Japan's Asian neighbors --had 55.9% support, compared to 28.1% for Aso. That was in line with other surveys.
Naval Mission Support
Whoever is elected president of the LDP is assured of the premiership, as the ruling coalition commands a firm majority in parliament's lower house, which picks the prime minister.
The winning candidate needs a majority of 528 votes comprised of 387 LDP members of parliament and three representatives from each of the party's 47 prefectural chapters.
Aso, an early favorite who fell behind when the LDP's main factions agreed to support Fukuda, has counted on a groundswell of support from LDP rank-and-file to turn the race around.
The 52-year-old Abe abruptly announced his resignation last week, saying he wanted to clear the path for a compromise with opposition parties over extending a Japanese naval mission in support of U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan.
The main opposition Democratic Party and its small allies are against the mission to refuel coalition ships in the Indian Ocean, a step strongly sought by close security ally Washington.
Both Fukuda and Aso have stressed the importance of extending the mission, but say they want to better explain why it is needed to the opposition and the public.
Public support for the mission appears to be growing.
The Sankei poll showed 48.7% of respondents favored extending the mission, compared to 39.1% who were against it. Earlier media surveys had shown more opposed than in favor.
The opposition parties, which won control of parliament's upper house in a July election, can delay legislation to extend the mission beyond a Nov. 1 deadline.
Fukuda said at the weekend it was theoretically possible for the ruling coalition to enact a law to extend the mission by overriding the upper house with its two-thirds majority in the lower chamber, but added doing so would be a last resort.
Both candidates vow to keep on track reforms to reduce government control over the world's second biggest economy.