TOKYO, Sep 17 (Reuters) Yasuo Fukuda emerged as runaway leader to become Japan's next prime minister today after a survey of ruling party lawmakers who must choose between the 71-year-old veteran and his hawkish rival Taro Aso next weekend.
Two public opinion polls also showed that a majority of voters preferred Fukuda to Aso, making him a safer bet to lead the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as it faces pressure from a combative opposition to call an early general election.
The Yomiuri newspaper said 55 per cent of LDP lawmakers would back Fukuda, an advocate of warmer ties with other Asian countries, and just 12 percent would support former foreign minister Taro Aso in a Sept. 23 vote for the party presidency.
Fukuda, the son of a former prime minister, was also likely to draw a hefty chunk of the 141 votes allocated to the LDP's prefectural chapters, the newspaper reported.
The race was triggered by the abrupt resignation last week of Shinzo Abe after a hapless year as prime minister.
Whoever is elected president of the LDP is assured of the premiership as the ruling coalition commands a firm majority in parliament's lower house, which picks the prime minister.
Ordinary Japanese voters have no direct say in the LDP poll.
But their opinions matter since the next party chief will likely face a general election that must be held by late 2009 but could well come sooner, given a potential standoff in parliament with opposition parties, who now control the upper house.
Fukuda's fans appear to welcome the prospect of a calm hand on the tiller after recent political upsets, including a string of scandals and gaffes that cost Abe five cabinet ministers.
''I prefer Fukuda, who seems to be cool-headed,'' said Yoko Mine, a 63-year-old Tokyo housewife. ''He seems intelligent.'' A poll of voters by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper showed 53 per cent supported Fukuda while 21 per cent backed Aso as respondents said they favoured a leader with a consensual style.
The Yomiuri newspaper's public opinion poll also showed a majority wanted Fukuda as the next prime minister.
PEOPLE'S SUPPORT But whether Fukuda, who has a bland image compared to the outspoken Aso, could score a victory for his ruling camp in a general election, remains in doubt.
''I don't think he can get the people's support,'' said Yuji Tamai, a 54-year-old white collar worker waiting for a friend at a Tokyo train station. ''He has no charisma.'' Fukuda campaigned with Aso in the regions on Monday, vowing to resolve the emotive issue of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea decades ago.
''If the abductees come back, and North Korea gives up its nuclear and missile programmes, we can restore diplomatic relations,'' Fukuda told a crowd in the western city of Osaka.
''We can bring a new stage of growth in the region with China, South Korea and Russia.'' Clarifying the fate of Japanese who were hauled away in the 1970s and 1980s to help train North Korean spies in language and culture is an emotive matter that was central to Abe's agenda, and Aso has staked out a tough stance on the topic.
Fukuda's comments may have been an attempt to assuage concern that the issue would take a backseat to a softer approach in talks on ending North Korea's nuclear arms programme.
Both he and Aso have stressed the need to carry on economic reforms, while paying more attention to weaker regions and widening income gaps.
Both have also raised the possibility of raising the 5 percent consumption tax, a politically thorny issue because the last increase in 1997 was blamed for slowing the economy.
REUTERS SYU DS1407