Japanese prime minister resigns abruptly

Posted in Japan | 02-Sep-08 | Author: Martin Fackler| Source: International Herald Tribune

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda of Japan at a news conference in Tokyo, where he announced that he would resign, on Monday.

TOKYO: Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announced on Monday night that he would resign, abruptly ending his chronically unpopular government after just a year and leaving Japan's governing party scrambling to find fresh leadership ahead of crucial national elections.

Fukuda's surprise announcement, made at a hastily called news conference, stunned Japan and appeared to plunge the world's second largest economy into further political confusion. Last year, Fukuda's predecessor, the rightist Shinzo Abe, made an equally sudden resignation.

Fukuda's decision was particularly unexpected because he took office last September as a veteran political insider widely counted on, after Abe's hasty departure, to bring stability and restore the Liberal Democratic Party's tarnished credibility. In the end, Fukuda, 72, lasted about as long as Abe, roughly a year.

His resignation was also surprising to many because it came just a month after he had reshuffled his cabinet, and just days after he unveiled a $17 billion economic stimulus package.

Still, there had been widespread speculation that Fukuda, suffering from low ratings, might resign before the coming national elections, to give the party a chance to install a more popular leader. According to that thinking, the governing party might then call a snap election, hoping to ride the new leader's initial wave of approval to victory in the polls.

Most speculation on a successor has focused on Taro Aso, an outspoken, conservative former foreign minister who is now secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party. Aso, whom Fukuda defeated to become prime minister last year, has not said whether he will run again.

The Liberal Democrats will convene to select their new leader. Since they control the lower house of Parliament, which chooses the prime minister, their selection will automatically acquire the post. The selection process is expected to take about two weeks, during which time Fukuda will remain in office.

Fukuda, whose brief and unsuccessful term makes him unlikely to be one of the most favorably remembered Japanese prime ministers, fumed that he faced an uphill battle almost as soon as he took office. His short stint in office was also marked by a series of missteps and scandals, including allegations of graft at the Defense Ministry and his own cavalier comments about the government's apparent loss of the pension records of tens of millions of Japanese.

Despite his political credentials, he proved incapable of breaking a parliamentary deadlock that delayed the selection of a new central bank chief and the renewal of a law allowing Japanese ships to refuel American and other vessels involved in the war in Afghanistan. These setbacks, along with the owlish Fukuda's own colorless style, hurt his approval ratings, which dropped below 30 percent in recent polls.

"To be honest, from the beginning, longstanding problems appeared one after the other, and I had to face them," Fukuda said at the news conference, which was nationally televised. "Dealing with them worked me to death."

He said he wanted to get out of the way for a new leader to break the current stalemate in Parliament, where the opposition controls the upper house, and to prepare the party for the elections.

"This is the perfect timing to not cause people too much trouble," Fukuda said.

However, business leaders and opposition politicians were quick to criticize his abrupt exit, especially after Abe's sudden departure.

"It is an utterly irresponsible way to quit," Kozo Watanabe, a senior adviser at the Democratic Party, was quoted as saying by Japan's Kyodo News. "I cannot help worrying about what will happen to this country's politics."

Indeed, a lack of strong leadership has plagued Japan, even as it grapples with a host of new problems, including the rise of neighboring China and a slowdown in its $4.7 trillion economy. The resignations of both Fukuda and Abe, who led short-lived, unpopular governments, have highlighted the lack of stability here since the popular Junichiro Koizumi stepped down two years ago.