Former Health and Welfare Minister Junichiro Koizumi was running far ahead of his main competitor, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, in the LDP presidential primaries Sunday, virtually assuring his victory to replace Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on Tuesday.

It seems Hashimoto is in danger of becoming what has been a rare person in the LDP’s 45-year history — one who leads the party’s largest faction but fails to win its presidency.

Observing the landslide to Koizumi’s favor, the LDP’s Eto-Kamei faction, which is supporting LDP policy chief Shizuka Kamei in the race, is expected to switch soon to back Koizumi to have a better chance of maintaining power in the new government.

The faction’s 55 votes combined with Koizumi’s roughly 100 supporters in the Diet and the sentiment at local chapters clearly point to Koizumi taking the bulk of the vote.

Ballot-counting was under way Sunday for the primary elections of the party’s presidential race in 14 of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

As of 9 p.m. Sunday, Koizumi had won in 12 primaries — Hokkaido, Aomori, Yamagata, Kanagawa, Ishikawa, Aichi, Shiga, Osaka, Wakayama, Kagawa, Ehime and Kagoshima prefectures — following a clean sweep of all eight primaries held Saturday, securing 59 of the 141 votes assigned to local chapters. The 59 includes two votes from the Osaka prefectural chapter, which distributed two to Koizumi and the remaining one to Hashimoto, according to the number of votes they garnered.

Koizumi — although seen as a confident and media savvy candidate — admitted that the public outpouring has taken him by surprise. “I had no idea I’d do this well in so many districts. It’s like pent-up magma that’s erupted,” he said during a talk show on public broadcaster NHK.

Hashimoto, minister in charge of administrative reform who is also charged with issues relating to Okinawa and the Northern Territories, won seven votes — three from Okinawa and three from Okayama, where his constituency is, and one from Osaka.

LDP policy chief Shizuka Kamei on Friday garnered the three votes from Hiroshima Prefecture, where his constituency is. Taro Aso, state minister of economic and fiscal policy, had captured no votes in the primaries. Koizumi won on Aso’s home turf of Fukuoka Prefecture.

The new LDP president will be picked by 141 prefectural representatives — three from each of the 47 prefectural chapters — plus the party’s 346 Diet members. If no contender wins a majority, a runoff will be held immediately after the first round of balloting.

The winner of the race is virtually certain to be named prime minister because the LDP-led coalition controls a majority in the House of Representatives, which has the final say in picking Japan’s prime minister. The remaining branches will finalize returns by today.

Former Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka, another influential member of Hashimoto’s faction, suggested Saturday night that Hashimoto may refrain from challenging Koizumi in a runoff if Koizumi secures more votes than Hashimoto in Tuesday’s voting.

“An overall direction seems to have been set,” he said in a speech in Yonago, Tottori Prefecture. “We must respect the opinions of local (party members) and we must avoid showing ugly aspects of our party to the public.”

Koizumi, 59, won in Chiba, Gifu, Niigata, Hyogo, Tokushima, Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Saga prefectures Saturday. But, Hashimoto, 63, dismissed the likelihood of withdrawing from the election. “I won’t quit halfway,” he told a Fuji TV program Sunday. “I’ll fight until the time is up.”

But speculation is now spreading that the former prime minister may avoid causing excessive conflict in the interest of maintaining party unity after the election, party sources said.

Sources close to Hashimoto said he is expected to receive votes from 145 out of 346 lawmakers, mostly from his own faction and that of Mitsuo Horiuchi, former international trade and industry minister.

Koizumi is expected to be backed by some 100 lawmakers, mainly from the factions led by outgoing Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, former LDP policy chief Taku Yamasaki and former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato.

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