By Tetsushi Kajimoto and Yoshifumi Takemoto
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's chief government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, moved a step closer to becoming the next premier when the ruling party decided on Tuesday on a slimmed-down leadership vote that favours the long-time lieutenant of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Suga has also won the backing of the largest faction of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), media reported, making him a strong front-runner to replace Abe, who announced on Friday he was stepping down for health reasons.
While Suga has not announced his candidacy for party head, he has indicated privately that he intends to run, a source told Reuters. Media reported he would formally announce his intention to run on Wednesday.
The party's leader will almost certainly become prime minister because of its majority in the lower house of parliament.
Suga, 71, would be widely expected to stay the policy course set out by Abe, including the "Abenomics" strategy aimed at reviving the economy and keeping it afloat amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
A self-made politician, Suga was chosen by Abe in 2012 for the pivotal role of chief cabinet secretary, acting as top government spokesman, coordinating policies and riding herd on bureaucrats.
Suga's most likely rivals for the top spot will be former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba and ex-foreign minister Fumio Kishida.
Both Kishida and Ishiba announced their candidacies on Tuesday. But Defence Minister Taro Kono, who had been expected to run, had decided not to, Kyodo news reported.
The LDP general council's decision to keep rank-and-file party members out of the leadership vote gives Suga, with his powerful backers, a leg-up in the race. Ishiba, who is more popular with voters, as well as hundreds of other party members, had opposed the format.
Announcing his candidacy, Ishiba said it was "very regrettable" that all LDP members would not be able to vote for their leader. He has said the decision would be bad for both democracy and the party.
Kishida, who was long seen as Abe's preferred successor but has been scoring low in voter polls, said the slimmed-down leadership race was in line with party rules and Japan must continue with fiscal stimulus.
Kishida emphasised his experience in economics and foreign policy, telling a news conference he would do his "utmost for the nation and the people".
AVOIDING A VACUUM
LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, whose faction is backing Suga, said the simplified vote, by party MPs from both chambers of parliament and heads of local chapters, would be taken in the interest of speed.
LDP General Council chief, Shunichi Suzuki, said the decision to have a simplified vote was unanimous, with some worrying that a prolonged process would place a burden on Abe's health.
On Monday, younger LDP legislators met Nikai to present a demand from more than 140 MPs and about 400 local party lawmakers for a full-scale vote. Several chapters including Osaka had also demanded the same.
The LDP is expected to hold the vote on Sept. 14, with an announcement on the date due on Wednesday. Financial markets also favour and appear to have factored in a win by Suga.
"He is considered to be a very effective policy leader within the party and bureaucracy ... and was key to Abe's successful tenure," said John Vail, chief global strategist at Nikko Asset Management.
"Suga's experience with the virus situation, including his appropriate push-back on complete shutdowns, is key, as this is Japan's greatest concern right now," he said.
Another possible contender is Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi who said on Tuesday he had not decided whether to run, while former cabinet minister Seiko Noda said she would not run.
(Reporting by Tetsushi Kajimoto, Yoshifumi Takemoto and Antoni Slodkowski; Additional reporting by Elaine Lies, Kiyoshi Takenaka, Linda Sieg, David Dolan, Chris Gallagher, Tomo Uetake; Writing by Chang-Ran Kim and Elaine Lies; Editing by Kim Coghill and Lincoln Feast)