Japan's ruling party hopes Aso will restore its reputation

As a popular politician, Olympian, and fan of manga comics, Taro Aso contrasts sharply with the lackluster former prime minister, whose shoes he is likely to fill on Wednesday.

shizuo kambayashi/AP
Old Guard: Taro Aso received applause in Tokyo Monday after his election as Liberal Democratic Party President. He's called for tax cuts and government stimulus spending.

He's a veteran politician known for his unruly tongue and gaffes that have alienated everyone from the nation of China to the elderly and the infirm. He's a former Olympic sharpshooter who avows a deep interest in manga comics, one of Japan's most popular cultural exports. He has an affinity for gold necklaces.

Now, Taro Aso is being tapped by the Liberal Democratic Party, which has presided over Japan for most of the past half-century, as the one to restore its badly tarnished reputation at home – and offer reassurance abroad that the world's second-largest economy speaks with a steady voice at a time of global financial turmoil and pressing diplomatic concerns.

Mr. Aso easily walked away with the party's presidency Monday, garnering 351 of the 525 votes cast and trouncing four competitors. All but certain to become Japan's 13th prime minister in 19 years, pending approval by the LDP-controlled lower house of parliament Wednesday, he promises a sharp counterpoint to his lackluster predecessor. He may try to capitalize on that fresh tone – as well as an expected ratings bounce – by quickly calling a general election.

"We're now at the starting line to face new difficulties," Aso asserted after his victory. "Once we win ... I can fulfill my mission."

But his ability to reverse his party's fortunes is closely linked to persuading voters that he has a clear strategy on a host of festering economic and social woes: sharpening income inequality, rising ranks of part-time workers, food and gas price hikes, and weak services for the elderly. Last week's scandal over tainted imported rice has not helped the public mood.

"The big juncture is the next election," says Steven Vogel, professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley. "If the LDP pulls it out, it's back. If they don't, then you have a real transfer of power, the first since 1993. It would be pretty dramatic."

LDP legislative efforts thwarted

The LDP has struggled to govern since the opposition Democratic Party of Japan took control of the Diet's upper house in July 2007 and stalled high-profile legislative initiatives. Its obstructionist skill played prominently in the decisions of Aso's two predecessors to decamp abruptly.

But the DPJ has grown more popular with voters, and last weekend, newly reelected party leader Ichiro Ozawa laid out an ambitious populist agenda that could play well in a general election, which the DPJ wants to be held immediately.

In choosing Aso, who has held four cabinet posts and is the grandson of a former prime minister, the LDP is handing the stage back to its old guard, which was temporarily eclipsed by renegade Junichiro Koizumi's tumultuous 2001-2006 tenure.

"The LDP skipped a generation with Koizumi and then again with [Shinzo] Abe," says a senior US former government official. "Going to Aso is part of fighting generational change in the party."

Indeed, Aso's policies depart little from traditional LDP fare: He has pledged to pass a major fiscal stimulus package of the sort that was an LDP staple until Mr. Koizumi tried to do away with pork barrel spending, and has dismissed Koizumi's goal of dealing with Japan's massive budget deficit by 2011.

"On domestic policy, [Aso] wants to be the antithesis of Koizumi reform," says Gerald Curtis, a professor of political science at Columbia University in New York. "He wants tax cuts and to have the government spend more money to stimulate the economy."

That could attract voters disillusioned by the painful aftershocks of economic reforms. "He will give the Diet a supplementary budget and press the DPJ to agree with it," says Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst. "If the bill is passed, Aso's Cabinet will get credit. If the DPJ blocks it, Aso will make that an issue in the upcoming general election."

An international agenda

Aso has addressed America's financial upheavals, saying that Japan has to stimulate domestic demand to help a flagging world economy, but warning that the country "must not allow [the crisis] to bring us down as well."

Other international issues that will demand quick attention include the Self-Defense Forces' mission in providing fuel and other support for coalition forces in the Indian Ocean, another extension of which the DPJ opposes.

Aso is also seen as favoring a more diplomatically vocal Japan, and has a hawkish bent. He has had sharp words for China and North Korea; disputes are likely to continue with South Korea over claims to islands known in Korea as Dokdo and in Japan as Takeshima. But he has taken pains to show moderation as well, saying recently that Japan "will live with China."

Whether Aso can stay in office for long is anyone's guess. "Prime Minister Fukuda's biggest problem was that he saw the DPJ's control of the Upper House as meaning he couldn't get anything done," says Professor Curtis. "But divided government can work if you have a strategy. With his personality, Aso has a shot."

For the US, notes the former government official, it's important not to read more into Japan's political struggles than is there

"Japan is important in the global economy; it's an important ally; it provides facilities and bases for the US," he says. "The US shouldn't overstate Japan's current situation as a sign of weakness."

Amelia Newcomb is reporting from Tokyo as a fellow of the International Reporting Project.

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