Abe boosts lead among public as next prime minister

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe has widened his lead over former top government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda as the voters’ preferred candidate to succeed Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister, according to a Kyodo News survey.

Nearly half, or 48.1 percent, of those who responded to a nationwide telephone survey favored Abe, up 2.5 percentage points from a survey conducted last month. Fukuda lost 1.9 points and had a support rate of 22.4 percent. He now trails Abe by 25.7 points.

Analysts believe Abe’s increased media exposure, particularly following the recent missile tests by North Korea, has worked to his advantage, while support for Fukuda fell because he has equivocated over whether he intends to run for the Liberal Democratic Party’s top post.

The ruling LDP plans to hold its presidential election on Sept. 20. Because of the LDP’s Diet majority, the winner will be the next prime minister.

Lawmakers and sources close to Abe and Fukuda have said the two front-runners will likely announce their candidacies in late August.

Many LDP lawmakers believe the outlook for the race may change if Koizumi visits Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II.

Abe has supported Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits and he has repeatedly visited the shrine himself on the anniversary of the war’s end.

Fukuda questions the wisdom of the visits and has stressed the importance of mending ties with China and South Korea, which have been outraged by the visits.

While Koizumi has indicated that he plans to visit Yasukuni again before he steps down, a slight majority of those surveyed, 52.3 percent, said he should not go, while 38.9 percent said he should.

The telephone poll was conducted Friday and Saturday, gathering valid responses from 1,011 people.