• Kyodo

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Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party is likely to choose its new leader, and therefore the prime minister, in a runoff vote between vaccine czar Taro Kono and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, according to a Kyodo News survey conducted through Monday.

Among the four candidates in Wednesday’s LDP presidential election, Kono is expected to win the biggest share of the 764 votes up for grabs in the first round but fall short of securing an absolute majority. Kishida will likely come second.

Kishida has locked up around 135 of the 382 votes held by LDP lawmakers, followed by Kono with at least 100, former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi with just under 100 and senior party official Seiko Noda with a little more than 20.

Added up with the 382 votes held by the party’s rank-and-file members, Kono is set to end up with more than 300, Kishida around 230, Takaichi just under 170 and Noda around 35.

Kyodo News polled LDP rank-and-file members over the weekend, and either directly asked lawmakers how they plan to vote or spoke to people with knowledge of their thinking.

Kono tops opinion polls on who is most suited to succeed outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, making him an attractive choice for lawmakers who feel vulnerable heading into a general election that must be held by November.

Suga announced his resignation amid criticism of his government’s COVID-19 response.

The winner of the LDP presidential election is all but guaranteed to become the country’s new leader, as the party and its junior coalition partner Komeito control both chambers of the Diet.

While lawmakers and rank-and-file members hold an equal number of votes in the first round, the runoff gives greater weight to the former group — they have 382, compared with 47 for the party’s prefectural chapters.

This means the result of a head-to-head battle between Kono and Kishida will likely rest on how lawmakers who chose Takaichi and Noda in the first round decide to vote.

In the 2012 LDP presidential election, Shinzo Abe, who eventually became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, trailed a rival candidate in the first round but won the runoff having secured the support of major intraparty factions.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, who effectively heads a faction with 51 lawmakers, said after meeting with members on Monday that many looked to back Kishida in the event of a runoff.

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