Reuters - Former Japan Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba is the most popular choice among the public to be the next prime minister, opinion polls showed as the race kicks off to succeed Shinzo Abe after his resignation last week.

Ishiba has about 34 percent of the public's support, more than double the 14 percent for Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the second-most popular choice, a weekend Kyodo News survey showed.

A Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll showed Ishiba with 28 percent support, followed by current Defense Minister Taro Kono with 15 percent. Suga was in fourth place with 11 percent, the poll showed.

The surveys highlight a split between public opinion and internal Liberal Democratic Party politics.

Suga - a longtime lieutenant of Abe's - is expected to get the backing of the faction led by LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and of other important factions, local news media reported, putting him in a favorable position.

That would make it an uphill battle for Ishiba, a vocal Abe critic who unsuccessfully challenged the outgoing premier in the last LDP leadership race in 2018 and is considered less popular within the party.

Another potential candidate, LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, came in last place in both of the public opinion surveys.

Abe's resignation Friday, blaming the worsening of a chronic illness, set the stage for the party leadership election, which public broadcaster NHK said was likely to take place around Sept. 13 to Sept. 15.

The LDP president is virtually assured of being prime minister because of the party's majority in the lower house of parliament.

Brad Glosserman, deputy director of the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University, said Suga was the safe bet in terms of internal LDP dynamics, but might not be ideal come election time. A general election must be held by late October 2021.

"He doesn't seem to have either the charisma or the vision to push Japan in a new direction. He seems to be the eternal No. 2 - he delivers on promises made by his boss," Glosserman said.