The four-way leadership election for Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, slated for Wednesday, is highly likely to go to a runoff between the top two contenders after an inconclusive first round of voting.
LDP President and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's abrupt decision to step down has thrown the race wide open.
With none of the four candidates expected to gain a majority in the first round, where votes from LDP lawmakers and grassroots party members have equal weight, the top two contenders would head into a runoff.
LDP lawmakers are worried that the public may be disappointed if a candidate who garners many votes from rank-and-file members in the first round is defeated in the runoff, where lawmakers' votes have heavier weight and factional backing means a lot.
In such a case, the party will face a "payback" in the coming election for the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the Diet, which needs to be held in the autumn, a young lawmaker said.
The top choice among grassroots LDP members appears to be regulatory reform minister Taro Kono, a reform-minded maverick.
Kono, 58, has also won support from about half of the 53 lawmakers of the intraparty faction led by Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, to which Kono himself belongs.
In addition, he is backed mainly by middle-ranking and young lawmakers across factions who have relatively weak support bases in their constituencies.
"I'll do my best to win in the first round," Kono told reporters on Wednesday.
Kono's camp is positioning him as a favorable choice for lawmakers who want to undertake general election campaigning under a popular leader.
But Kono is widely expected to struggle in a runoff as many LDP lawmakers are opposed to his policy stances on public pensions and nuclear power, which go against the conventional policies of the government and the LDP.
"We hope to win 60% of votes from grassroots party members," a former cabinet minister in the Kono camp said, hoping to attract lawmakers' support as well.
For former LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, 64, the main support base is his 46-member faction, the party's largest faction with 96 members, led by former LDP Secretary-General Hiroyuki Hosoda, and veteran lawmakers from the Aso faction.
Kishida's camp anticipates a scenario in which he comes second and Sanae Takaichi, 60-year-old former internal affairs minister, finishes third. In this case, they hope Kishida can draw support from the Takaichi camp to upset Kono in the expected runoff.
Meanwhile, the Kishida camp is concerned as Takaichi is catching up rapidly. If Takaichi comes second in the first round, more than a few members of the Kishida camp are negative about supporting her in the runoff.
With the backing of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Takaichi has gained support widely across conservative lawmakers.
If Takaichi advances to the runoff, however, those who voted for Kishida and Seiko Noda, executive acting secretary-general of the LDP, in the first round might back away from Takaichi's hawkish stance and instead vote for Kono in the final round.
Noda, 61, is seeking to gather more support with a focus on diversity.
The LDP's six intraparty factions other than the Kishida faction have effectively decided to give their members a free hand in the voting.
But they are increasingly tilting toward voting in line with their factions' decisions in a runoff, mindful of appointments for cabinet ministers and party executives after the election.
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