Daunting tasks face Japan's next premier

After Fukuda, Japan is looking for a leader who can fix a flagging economy and political stagnation.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Next up: Taro Aso, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is a likely successor to Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who resigned abruptly Monday.
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Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's abrupt resignation Monday has left the ruling party searching for a replacement who can tackle the political deadlock and flagging economy that overwhelmed the outgoing leader's year in office.

The successor will also need to help revive the sinking popularity of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan for most of the past half century, and is required to hold general elections within a year.

He'll be the third prime minister in two years to try to lead.

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Taro Aso, currently secretary-general of the LDP, has emerged as a likely candidate. The politician – known for his sharp tongue and love of comic books – could bring a more forceful, if more controversial, style of leadership.

"[Fukuda] gave the impression he was never really in charge, in charge of his party, of parliament, or of the government," says Ellis Krauss, a professor of Japanese politics and policymaking at the University of California, San Diego. "Watching him on TV, I was amazed at how uncomfortable and insecure he seemed to be."

Throughout his year in office, Fukuda struggled with low approval ratings, which hovered between 19 and 35 percent over the past eight months, according to polls conducted by Asahi, a major newspaper.

Fukuda, however, is not the only Japanese prime minister who struggled to lead. Last September, Fukuda's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, also abruptly resigned after about a year in office, citing health reasons. "This is a sign that the LDP is in the process of collapsing," Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst.

With the exception of the popular Junichiro Koizumi, a charismatic leader who preceded Mr. Abe in the office from 2001 to 2006, many prime ministers have not lasted long in office. Beginning in 1989, Japan cycled through 10 prime ministers in 12 years, until Mr. Koizumi came on the scene, points out Richard Katz, editor of The Oriental Economist Report, a monthly newsletter about Japan and US-Japan relations.

Many lawmakers in the ruling coalition feared they would not be able to win the next election in the lower house under Fukuda's leadership. "Mr. Fukuda's cabinet has lost support of the Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organization," a main support body of New Komeito, the LDP's junior coalition partner, says Mr. Morita. "The LDP cannot survive without their support."

Fukuda and Mr. Abe struggled to stay popular in part because neither "paid much attention to convincing the public through the media that they cared about reform," says Krauss.

"The one prime minister [Koizumi] who campaigned and ruled on the basis of structural reform was able to stay in power," says Mr. Katz. "Now, with two prime ministers who put reform on the back burner, we seem to have returned to the era of short-lived weak prime ministers."

The LDP says it will hold its presidential election on Sept. 22. That nominee should then face no difficulty winning approval in the lower house of parliament, where the LDP and its junior coalition partner hold a majority.

Many eyes have now turned to Mr. Aso, who ran for the office against Fukuda last year but is now the party's top candidate. "I must take leadership," he said after Fukuda's announcement.

Aso's engaging personality could benefit the party in elections. But while his outspoken style has won favor among some voters, it has also riled political rivals and Japan's neighbors: He has angered China for calling it a military threat. In July, he compared an opposition party's tactics to those used by the Nazis. A former foreign minister, Aso favors a stronger Japan that engages more overseas.

"The next leader, probably Aso Taro, will need to project a more dynamic leadership image – something Mr. Aso probably can do – but also avoid Mr. Abe's mistakes of focusing solely on foreign policy and pay some attention again to domestic reform," says Mr. Krauss.

The economy is a looming issue for Japan, where exports have slumped and inflation risen. The economy had its biggest contraction since 2001 in the second quarter of this year. A recent Asahi poll shows 82 percent of the people say their lives are difficult.

Wire material was used for this report.

Possible prime ministers

• Taro Aso, the ruling party's secretary-general, is known for his often controversial comments. But he's also well-liked among Japanese youths, which could help the LDP in future elections. Aso is seen as hawkish but has promised to avoid the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead but is seen by many in Asia as a symbol of militarism.

• Kaoru Yosano, a conservative politician, is economics minister and led the government's efforts last week to create a stimulus package.

• Yuriko Koike, a former TV announcer, served as Japan's first female defense minister and is now environment minister.

• Seiko Noda, consumer affairs minister.

• Nobuteru Ishihara, a former minister, advocates sweeping reform of the bureaucracy.

Source: Reuters

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