TOKYO (Reuters) - Former Japanese Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba is the most popular choice among the public to be the next prime minister, media opinion polls showed, as the race kicks off to succeed Shinzo Abe after his abrupt resignation last week.
But Ishiba, a vocal Abe critic, could face an uphill battle if he does declare his candidacy, with local media reporting Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was set to receive the backing of several major factions within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Japan does not elect its leader by direct popular vote. Under the country's parliamentary political system, lawmakers elect a prime minister who is usually the leader of the ruling party.
Ishiba has about 34% of the public's support, more than double the 14% for Suga, the second-most popular choice, a weekend Kyodo News survey showed.
A Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll showed Ishiba with 28% support, followed by current Defence Minister Taro Kono with 15%. Suga came in fourth place with 11%, the poll showed.
The surveys highlight a split between public opinion and internal LDP politics.
Suga - a longtime lieutenant of Abe's in a key supporting role - will join the race to replace his boss with support expected from the faction led by LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and other major factions, putting him in a favourable position.
Suga declined to comment on Monday when asked about the LDP leadership race at his regular news conference as the government's top spokesman.
Ishiba - who unsuccessfully challenged the out-going premier in the last LDP leadership race in 2018 and is considered less popular within the party - has yet to declare whether he will run.
LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, who has announced his intention to stand, came in last place in both of the public opinion surveys.
Kishida voiced caution on Monday over the idea of cutting the sales tax rate to help the economy weather the hit from the coronavirus pandemic.
Abe's resignation announcement on Friday, citing the worsening of a chronic illness, set the stage for the party leadership election, which public broadcaster NHK said was likely to place around Sept. 13 to 15.
The LDP president is virtually assured of being prime minister because of the party's majority in the lower house of parliament.
Brad Glosserman, deputy director of the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University, said Suga was the safe bet in terms of internal LDP dynamics, but might not be ideal come election time. A general election must be held by late October 2021.
"He doesn't seem to have either the charisma or the vision to push Japan in a new direction. He seems to be the eternal Number Two - he delivers on promises made by his boss," said Glosserman.
(Reporting by Chris Gallagher and Linda Sieg; Editing by Michael Perry)