Japan LDP supporters favor Fukuda for next leader

TOKYO (Reuters) – Yasuo Fukuda appeared on Tuesday to be a shoo-in to become Japan’s next prime minister but his rival, hawkish former foreign minister Taro Aso, vowed to battle on against all odds.

The 71-year-old former cabinet minister has emerged as the clear frontrunner in a party leadership race against Aso, 66, after conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suddenly announced his resignation last week.

A survey by the Sankei newspaper showed that 60.3 percent of voters who support the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) favored Fukuda, double the 29.8 percent backing for Aso.

Earlier surveys have shown that Fukuda also has backing from a majority of the LDP lawmakers, who along with local party chapter representatives, will vote in the Sept 23 party poll.

The outspoken Aso, an early favorite who fell behind when the LDP’s main factions agreed to support Fukuda, has been counting on support from LDP rank-and-file to turn the tide.

“The battle is from here on in,” Aso 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.”

Fukuda’s fans see him as a moderate conservative who would bring political stability, while Aso is presenting himself as the bold leader Japan needs in a crisis.

“I support Fukuda. It seems like things could step back to where they were before, but he is more reliable,” said Kyoko Usui, a 53-year-old calligrapher.

Fukuda would become the oldest Japanese premier since Kiichi Miyazawa took office in 1991 at the age of 72.

Ordinary Japanese voters have no direct say in the LDP poll of party chapters and lawmakers, to be held on September 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.

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