TOKYO (Reuters) – Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has indicated he intends to run for leadership of Japan’s ruling party, a source said on Monday, soon after a report emerged that he had won the backing of one of the party’s most powerful factions.
The leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will almost certainly become prime minister because of its majority in the lower house of parliament, replacing Shinzo Abe who on Friday said he was stepping down for health reasons.
Suga has not announced his candidacy for leader but has indicated privately that he intends to run, said the person, who declined to be identified because the information is not public.
Earlier, Kyodo news reported that a group of legislators led by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso would back Suga in the race, giving him critical support that adds to some recent momentum.
A longtime lieutenant of Abe, Suga is seen as a strong contender thanks to support from LDP heavyweights including the party’s secretary general, Toshihiro Nikai.
Suga’s position contrasts to that of likely rival Shigeru Ishiba, an ex-defence minister more popular with voters but lacking strong backing in the party hierarchy, illustrating a divide between the leadership and some of the LDP’s rural rank and file.
“People still want an LDP government, but after Mr Abe has resigned they’re asking: ‘Who’s got a different style?'” Ishiba told Reuters in an interview on Monday.
“I’ve continuously challenged Abe and I have more support than those who haven’t. This is not based on performance, but on expectations,” he said, in comments that appeared to be aimed at Suga.
Ishiba has also not formally declared an intention to run and declined to comment on his plans when asked by Reuters. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper later reported he would run, citing members of his faction.
LDP executives are expected to adopt a quicker, slimmed-down election format for the race that would limit voting to lawmakers and representatives of local chapters, excluding votes from many rural members and effectively blocking Ishiba.
Ishiba has the support of about 34% of the public, more than double the 14% for Suga, the second-most popular choice, a Kyodo News survey on the weekend showed.
A Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll showed Ishiba with 28% support, followed by current Defence Minister Taro Kono with 15%. Suga came in fourth with 11% in that poll.
Besides Kono, another possible contenders is Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister.
Abe, Japan’s longest-serving premier, said he was stepping down because of worsening health.
The LDP will hold its leadership vote on Sept. 14.
(Additional reporting by Chris Gallagher, Linda Sieg, Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel and Mark Heinrich and Chizu Nomiyama)