TOKYO (REUTERS) - Mr Taro Kono, Japan's minister in charge of fighting Covid-19 and a top choice of voters for Japanese prime minister, may also pick up the backing of a popular ruling party heavyweight in the race for party leader, broadcaster TV Asahi said on Monday (Sept 6).
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's shock Friday announcement that he was stepping down has thrown a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership race set for Sept 29 into disarray, with a wide array of candidates set to vie for the top job.
The LDP's majority in parliament guarantees the winner will become prime minister.
Former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, 64, is the only candidate to throw his hat into the ring so far.
Mr Kono has yet to formally declare his candidacy but media reports say his intention to run is strengthening.
Former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, who is popular among LDP grassroots members, is considering backing Mr Kono instead of running himself, TV Asahi reported, without citing sources or further details - a move that could significantly increase Mr Kono's chances of winning.
Mr Kono sidestepped the issue at a Monday news conference on Japan's vaccination drive, saying only that in the case he did run he would make sure it had no impact on his current duties, including a vaccine rollout in a nation where not quite half have been fully inoculated.
Mr Ishiba, 64, had such strong support among rank-and-file party members in the past that he defeated Mr Suga's predecessor Shinzo Abe in the first round of a 2012 leadership race. He lost in a later round, when only lawmakers could vote, and has since lost two more leadership contests.
According to the survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun daily, 23 per cent of respondents said Mr Kono, the minister in charge of vaccines, was the most suitable person to take over, echoing a Sunday poll that had 31.9 per cent favouring Mr Kono.
Mr Kono held a narrow edge over former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, with 21 per cent. Former foreign minister Kishida trailed with 12 per cent.
A former foreign and defence minister, the 58-year-old Mr Kono, educated at Georgetown University and a fluent English speaker, has built a popular following among young voters with an active social media presence in two languages, with 2.3 million followers on his Japanese page alone.
Mr Kono has long been a favoured candidate for prime minister and has made no secret of wanting the job, but party elders are wary of him for his outspokenness and reputation as a maverick.
Others feel he is still too young for the job. Over the weekend, though, one TV network reported that Mr Kono had gained Mr Suga's backing.
Unlike last year's leadership race, when Mr Suga emerged the winner, this time ordinary party members at the prefectural level will also be able to vote, making the outcome harder to predict.
Potential candidates spent a busy weekend meeting with other lawmakers, sounding them out for support, media said. Each needs to gather 20 supporters by Sept 17 to become a formal candidate, with the vote on Sept 29.
Should the results be close, a second round would be held with only lawmakers allowed to vote.
With no clear front-runner at this point, the actions of Mr Suga's predecessor, Mr Abe, are being closely watched. Mr Abe quit the premiership last year due to ill health but still retains influence in the party's two largest factions and among conservative lawmakers.
Japanese media has reported that Mr Abe will be backing former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi, who hopes to become Japan's first woman prime minister.
But Monday's Yomiuri survey had Ms Takaichi trailing badly at 3 per cent - just behind Mr Abe himself, at 5 per cent.