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Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono pulled out of the race to become Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president Monday leaving outspoken Trade Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto poised to lead Japan's biggest political party and possibly become the country's next prime minister.

Kono's surprise withdrawal for "party unity" threw Japanese politics into turmoil because of the effect it could have on Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's three-party coalition of his Socialists, the LDP and the Sakigake party.Kono, LDP president for the past two years and one of the main architects of the LDP's coalition with Murayama, told a news conference Japan had too many problems at present to cope with a bruising political fight between him and Hashimoto.

But political analysts said Kono's withdrawal was dictated by the surge of support for Hashimoto since the trade minister announced his candidacy just 10 days ago, leaving the foreign minister little choice but to step down gracefully.

Hashimoto, 58, from the LDP's conservative wing, has become one of Japan's most visible and popular politicians since he settled a car trade dispute with the United States in June averting what could have been a damaging trade war.

Kono has lost support because he was blamed for lack of leadership in heavy losses in upper-house polls in July.