Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso officially announced his candidacy yesterday to replace Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi next month, despite polls that show him trailing far behind the frontrunner, Kyodo News agency reported.
Aso is one of three likely candidates in the campaign for the Sept. 20 balloting to pick a new president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) -- a position that virtually guarantees the winner the premiership because the LDP controls parliament.
Aso made the announcement during an LDP faction meeting ahead of his scheduled policy speech later yesterday, Kyodo said.
Koizumi, who took power in April 2001, has vowed to step down when his term as party president expires next month.
He has not yet publicly thrown his support behind a particular candidate.
In his announcement, Aso, a conservative, was expected to map out his policies, including economic and fiscal measures and educational reform.
Recent polls have portrayed Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, who is expected to officially announce his candidacy early next month, as the frontrunner in the race, with a comfortable lead over Aso and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki.
In a survey released yesterday by the business daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun, 44 percent of the 891 voters who responded to the Aug. 18-21 telephone poll favored Abe, with 6.4 percent supporting Tanigaki and 5.5 percent backing Aso.
Despite the tough prospects, Aso said he would hold out to the end.
"You never know the results until the ballot box is closed," Aso told a group of reporters outside his residence earlier yesterday.
Aso, who became foreign minister following an LDP victory in lower house elections in September last year, has irked Beijing with a series of provocative statements.
In one instance, he called China a military threat. He has also accused Beijing of using beautiful women as spies to lure Japanese diplomats into revealing classified information. He also credited Taiwan's high educational standards to Japanese colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century.
However, in recent weeks, he has taken a more cautious position over official visits to a Tokyo war shrine that honors Japanese war criminals among 2.5 million war dead and defends the nation's militaristic past.
Distancing himself from Abe's staunch support for Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, Aso has said he would hold off on visits to the shrine when he becomes prime minister and expressed a willingness to mend ties with Beijing and Seoul.
Aso has also proposed making the shrine a secular institution and putting it under the control of the state, allowing parliament to decide who is honored there.
Koizumi worshipped at Yasu-kuni last Tuesday despite protests from China and South Korea, which see such visits as reflecting a Japanese lack of remorse over its wartime aggression.
Aso, a grandson of the late prime minister Shigeru Yoshida, ran unsuccessfully against Koizumi for the LDP presidency in 2001.