Vaccination minister Taro Kono is viewed by 48.6 percent of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's rank-and-file members as most suitable to be party leader and effectively Japan's next prime minister, a Kyodo News poll showed Saturday, ahead of a tight LDP leadership election in less than two weeks.

Kono is running in the Sept. 29 LDP presidential election to pick Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's successor. He is vying for the post along with former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi, a former minister of internal affairs and communications, and Seiko Noda, the party's executive acting secretary general.

Kishida was supported by 18.5 percent, Takaichi 15.7 percent and Noda 3.3 percent in the two-day telephone survey conducted from Friday, to which 1,028 rank-and-file members and supporters of the LDP responded.

The four candidates running in the presidential election of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party pose after attending a debate sponsored by video-sharing service Niconico in Tokyo on Sept. 18, 2021. The four -- (from L) vaccination minister Taro Kono, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, former communications minister Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda, executive acting secretary general of the LDP -- are vying for the post currently held by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Whoever wins the race will become prime minister as the LDP-led coalition holds a majority in both chambers of parliament.

In the first round of the election, each of the LDP's 382 Diet members will cast a vote, and another 382 votes will be determined based on the preferences of the rank-and-file members. A runoff will see votes from the 382 Diet members and each of the LDP's 47 prefectural chapters.

Out of 382 votes cast by the rank-and-file members, Kono is expected to receive over 200. Based on a calculation excluding the 13.9 percent of respondents who did not pick a candidate, Kishida is likely to receive about 80 votes, followed by Takaichi with some 70 votes and Noda around 10 votes.

But in contrast to the survey showing Kono in the lead, Kyodo News has found that Kishida appears to have more than 20 percent of support from the LDP's Diet members, with Kono and Takaichi nearing that level, while support for Noda has barely reached 10 percent.

Campaigning for the LDP presidential election began Friday, two weeks after Suga announced he would not run in the leadership election, amid low public support ratings due to dissatisfaction with the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The survey also found that only 25.5 percent of the rank and file viewed the Suga government's response to the pandemic as poor, while 71.8 percent said the COVID situation was handled very well or well to a certain degree.

Regarding policy priorities, 26.8 percent said the next prime minister should focus on steps to counter COVID-19, 24.2 percent said economic measures and 19.4 percent said foreign and security policies, according to the survey.

While Kono's camp welcomes the latest poll results, it wants to expand backing among the rank and file and LDP supporters, first by gaining 50 percent support and eventually expanding to 60 percent to ensure victory in the first round.

The camp of Kishida described the current situation based on the findings as "tough," while that of Takaichi said Kono's lead in the poll is "within expectations." The camp of Noda, who entered the race just a day before campaigning began, expressed hope to get more support in the coming days.

The social media savvy Kono, who is known for his reform-minded views, is pushing forward COVID-19 vaccinations and has said he wants to bring "drastic" changes to the country's pension system.

Kishida, meanwhile, has said he plans to draw up an economic package worth "tens of trillions of yen" to help people and businesses hit hard by the pandemic.

Takaichi, known as a staunch conservative with outspoken views on national security, has vowed to continue former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's signature "Abenomics" program, whereas Noda seeks to promote diversity in society welcoming to women, sexual minorities, the elderly and the disabled.

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