TOKYO Nearly two-thirds of Japanese voters prefer Prime Minister Naoto Kan to powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa as premier, media polls showed on Monday ahead of a Sept. 14 ruling party leadership race that appears too close to call.
The winner of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leadership election is likely to be prime minister by virtue of the party's majority in the powerful lower house and will have to cope with a strong yen, fragile economic recovery and deep structural woes.
DPJ members of parliament, local lawmakers and party members and supporters will take part in the race, which highlights a policy rift that could derail Kan's efforts to curb a public debt already twice the size of the $5 trillion economy.
An Asahi newspaper survey found that 65 percent of respondents said Kan was more appropriate as prime minister, against 17 percent who backed Ozawa. A poll by the Yomiuri newspaper showed a similar result.
That gap widened among those who said they support the DPJ, with 73 percent in the Asahi poll saying that Kan was more appropriate as the country's leader against 20 percent who supported Ozawa.
Domestic media say Ozawa, a 68-year-old political mastermind plagued by a scandal-tainted image, currently has a slight edge among 412 members of parliament from the DPJ, which swept to power for the first time a year ago.
But the opinion polls could affect undecided MPs as well as local lawmakers and rank-and-file party members, among whom media say Kan has an edge.
Support for Kan's government jumped to 49 percent in the Asahi survey, up 12 points from the previous survey in August. The Yomiuri poll also showed a rise in support for Kan.
(Reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Linda Sieg and Edmund Klamann)
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