Yasuo Fukuda: A steadier hand for Japan's helm?

Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party hopes the election Sunday of a new party leader will help voters forget his predecessor.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

After two weeks of carefully choreographed politicking that followed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's announcement that he would step down, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) elected Yasuo Fukuda as the party's president Sunday – a move that guarantees his succession to Japan's top post.

Mr. Fukuda is seen as more dovish and less assertive than Mr. Abe. That helped him best his main opponent, Taro Aso, whose closeness to Abe in terms of his nationalist outlook helped boost perceptions of Fukuda as a more conciliatory choice, especially in foreign relations.

"[Fukuda] will probably try to balance continued strong US-Japan relations with more sensitive and closer Japan-Asia relations," says Ellis Krauss, professor of Japanese politics and policymaking at the University of California, San Diego.

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After the year-long tenure of Abe, which was marked by public gaffes and damaging missteps, the party was seeking a replacement who looks "more reliable and experienced," say analysts. As a member of the LDP's old vanguard, Fukuda is more closely associated with popular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, under whom he served as chief cabinet secretary. By contrast, Aso's recent post as foreign minister may have placed him too close to the disgraced former premier.

"The party didn't think they could recover from the disastrous Abe administration without someone very different and not identified with Abe," says Mr. Krauss.

Other analysts suggest that LDP party heavyweights were infuriated by news that Aso had not revealed Abe's intention to step down to senior party officials, despite having had advance knowledge of the prime minister's plans. Some party officials apparently suspect that Aso's silence was a gambit to maneuver into the prime minister's office, say analysts.

Fukuda and Aso take similar policy positions

Although Fukuda won 330 votes to former Aso's 197, the policy differences between the two candidates are slight. Both hope to avoid reverting to the patronage system that once characterized Japanese public works projects – a system that Mr. Koizumi dismantled. They also want to narrow the widening gaps between major cities and provinces and to help those who have felt the bite of market reforms and budget-tightening.

Fukuda was elected 11 days after Abe abruptly announced his intention to step down as prime minister. The day after his announcement, Abe was hospitalized for psychological stress and exhaustion, and there has been no word on how soon he will be discharged.

Abe refused to quit after his party after it suffered a major defeat in the Upper House election in late July. One of the most damaging episodes during his tenure was Abe's response to the government's mishandling of tens of millions of pension records. Many voters felt that the prime minister appeared unconcerned with the lost records.

Playing the Japanese media

Following Abe's announcement that he will resign, the ensuing campaigns for president of the LDP, in which only party officials are given a vote, seemed to distract much of the media attention away from the disgraced former premier.

"I think the LDP is definitely trying to divert attention from Abe and make people forget his failures by monopolizing media coverage with these 'around the country' speech tours by Fukuda and Aso," says Krauss. "And I think it is at least partially working – mostly because the media coverage is allowing it to."

During the nine-day election campaign, nationwide networks often showed Fukuda and Aso standing side by side on the top of the bus, waving their hands when the candidates made a speech in front of a major station or a big department store, trying to appeal to the crowd.

"The media backed up Abe, who was not qualified for the post. Then they quickly removed the ladder," says Kenichi Asano, a journalism professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto. "The media exploited Abe, letting him push a hard line against North Korea for abducting Japanese citizens so that they could blow the issue out of proportion."

YASUO FUKUDA

1936: Born in Gunma prefecture, eldest son of politician Takeo Fukuda.

1959-76: Works in a petroleum company.

1976-78: Enters politics as his father's secretary; the elder Fukuda was then LDP head and prime minister.

1990: First elected to the lower house.

2000-2004: Appointed chief cabinet secretary to two consecutive prime ministers.

2007: Elected head of ruling LDP and is likely to become prime minister at the same age as his father.

Source: Daily Yomiuri; Official website.

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