Japan's Fukuda set for victory in leadership race

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TOKYO, Sep 22 (Reuters) Yasuo Fukuda is set for a decisive victory in the race to become Japan's prime minister, surveys showed today, as the two candidates to succeed Shinzo Abe prepared their final pitches to party faithful.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will pick a new president on Sunday hoping to revive its fortunes after a year marked by scandals, an election rout and a leadership crisis sparked by Abe's September 12 decision to resign.

The winning candidate needs a majority, or 265, of 528 votes comprising 387 LDP members of parliament and three representatives from each of the party's 47 prefectural chapters.

A survey by the liberal Asahi newspaper showed that Fukuda was expected to secure more than 60 per cent of the votes from the lawmakers and a majority of votes from the local chapters.

A poll by the conservative Sankei newspaper also put Fukuda, 71, far ahead of hawkish former foreign minister Taro Aso, with more 70 per cent votes from the lawmakers and about half of the votes from the chapters.

In a last-ditch effort, Aso, a fan of ''manga'' comic books who stresses that Japan needs a strong leader -- called on Japanese to urge their lawmakers to vote for him.

''Although I am said to be inferior (to Fukuda), I want you to tell the parliamentarians about your views directly,'' Aso, 67, told voters in the northern city of Sendai.

The leadership race winner is guaranteed to become prime minister by virtue of the ruling coalition's huge majority in parliament's powerful lower house.

The winner will formally become prime minister on Tuesday after a parliamentary vote.

But the next leader faces the daunting task of dealing with a sharply divided parliament, where combative opposition parties control the upper house.

One of the biggest challenges for the new premier will to extend past a November 1 deadline a naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of US-led operations in Afghanistan.

Fukuda and Aso stressed the need for Japan to continue its naval mission as part of global efforts to fight terrorism.

Abe, who turned 53 yesterday, abruptly announced his resignation last week, saying he wanted to clear the path for a compromise with opposition parties over extending the mission.

The main opposition Democratic Party and its small allies are against the mission to refuel coalition ships in the Indian Ocean.

The battle to extend the naval mission was likely to become tougher after reports Japan's navy had violated the law by supplying fuel to US warships taking part in the war in Iraq.

The opposition camp has vowed to question the government over the allegations.

The opposition parties, which won control of parliament's upper house in a July election, can delay legislation to extend the mission beyond the November 1 deadline.

The Yomiuri newspaper reported today that Fukuda would likely keep the current defence, finance, foreign and health ministers in his cabinet to be formed on Tuesday.

Fukuda said today he had made no decision.

''I have said nothing. It is a blank paper,'' he told reporters.

REUTERS SZ SSC1401

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