TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Former Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba will not run in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's upcoming leadership race and is leaning toward backing vaccination minister Taro Kono instead, people familiar with his decision said Tuesday.
Ishiba, the No. 2 pick to succeed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in opinion polls, had been considering putting his name forward for the Sept. 29 vote, which effectively determines the country's new leader, but some allies saw his chances of winning as slim and urged him to sit it out.
The LDP presidential election now appears to be a three-way contest between Kono, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former communications minister Sanae Takaichi.
Earlier this month, Suga announced his intention to resign after just a year in office amid mounting criticism over his government's COVID-19 response.
The decision by Ishiba will likely help Kono, who was No. 1 in media polls including one by Kyodo News, collect more votes from LDP lawmakers and rank-and-file members as the party seeks a popular leader heading into a general election this fall.
Having held a number of Cabinet and senior party posts including agriculture minister and LDP secretary general and long considered a contender for prime minister, Ishiba made his fourth attempt at becoming LDP leader last September but came in last behind Suga and Kishida.
Even among the 17 lawmakers belonging to the LDP faction headed by Ishiba, some had argued he should seek to realize his policy goals by throwing his support behind Kono, a fellow maverick within the conservative party known for his reform-minded views and social media savvy.
Ishiba is set to announce the decision not to run at a meeting of his faction on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, former communications minister Seiko Noda has expressed a desire to join the race but is having difficulty securing the endorsement by 20 lawmakers necessary to throw her hat in the ring.
In the Kyodo News opinion poll, conducted in the two days following Suga's resignation announcement, 31.9 percent of respondents said Kono is most fit to become prime minister while 26.6 percent chose Ishiba and 18.8 percent went with Kishida.
Noda followed with 4.4 percent, while Takaichi trailed with 4.0 percent.