Fukuda heads Japan's leadership race
TOKYO - Former chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda, a 71-year-old veteran moderate with a reputation as a consensus-oriented politician, has emerged as the front-runner in the race to succeed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who abruptly announced his resignation on Wednesday.
Fukuda, the eldest son of the late prime minister Takeo Fukuda, on Friday declared his candidacy in the election, set for September 23, to choose Abe's successor as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and hence as prime minister.
LDP secretary general Taro Aso, 66, previously considered by many to be a most likely successor to Abe, joined Fukuda later on Friday by throwing his hat into the ring as the election was officially declared the same day. Aso served as foreign minister under Abe until the prime minister reshuffled his cabinet late last month.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga, 63, who had expressed his intention to run in the race on Thursday, bowed out on Friday, making it almost certain that the leadership race will be fought between Fukuda and Aso.
Many observers say the election of Fukuda, who has already garnered broad support across party factional lines, has become almost certain. Aso is Abe's ally and shares hawkish views with Abe on issues of foreign and security policy. Like Fukuda, Aso is a political blue-blood. He is the grandson of the late prime minister Shigeru Yoshida.
On Thursday, a group of rookie LDP lawmakers urged Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, to join the leadership race. These lawmakers are dubbed "Koizumi children" because his popularity played a key role in helping them win seats in the last House of Representatives election in September 2005.
But Koizumi categorically ruled out seeking the helm of the LDP and government again. He was quoted as telling a young lawmaker, "I will not run. Look for another person." He was also quoted as telling former prime minister Yoshiro Mori that his not running in the election is "100%" certain. Koizumi has declared his support for Fukuda.
In accordance with election-related schedules decided by the general council, the top party decision-making body, on Thursday afternoon, Fukuda and Aso were expected to register their candidacy at the party headquarters on Saturday, officially kicking off campaigning for the September 23 party election.
After Abe made his surprise resignation announcement on Wednesday, some party leaders planned to hold the election on September 19. But many members protested, contending that more time was needed.
In addition to 387 LDP members of the Diet, Japan's parliament - 304 from the House of Representatives and 83 from the House of Councilors - the party's 47 prefectural chapters will vote, with three votes allotted to each. This means a total of 528 votes will be cast.
The LDP-led coalition lost control of the House of Councilors in the late-July election to the opposition led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). But the LDP president will be assured of election as prime minister in the Diet, as the party controls the more powerful Lower House, whose decisions take precedence over those of the Upper House regarding the election of a prime minister.
Former finance minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, 62, who ran in last year's LDP presidential race along with Abe and Aso, decided not to run this time and, instead, threw his support behind Fukuda. Tanigaki shares moderate views with Fukuda on issues of foreign and security policy. Both were critical of Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which drew angry responses from China and South Korea.
While Koizumi was in power, Abe - and Aso - supported Koizumi's Yasukuni visits, although Abe has refrained from making a shrine pilgrimage himself as premier. Abe made a whirlwind tour of Beijing and Seoul last October shortly after taking office, and Japan's relations with the two Asian neighbors, frozen under Koizumi, began to thaw. As Abe's foreign minister, a post he held until late last month, Aso also refrained from worshipping at the shrine.
Fukuda belongs to the largest LDP faction, currently chaired by Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura. The group has 80 Diet members. Immediately before declaring his candidacy, Fukuda met with leaders of three of the other factions and formally gained their support. The three faction leaders are former LDP secretary general Makoto Koga, former LDP vice president Taku Yamasaki, and Tanigaki. The Koga and Yamasaki factions are the third- and fourth-largest forces within the party.
These three factions have been critical of the current political confusion created by Abe and his ally, Aso. Some LDP lawmakers are critical of Aso, saying he has failed to prevent Abe from making the resignation announcement so soon - and so irresponsibly - only two days after the premier delivered a key policy speech in the Diet. Echoing views widely held by many Fukuda supporters, Koga said on Thursday that Aso should "inevitably hold responsibility for the Abe administration".
Nukaga belongs to the second-largest party faction, now led by Yuji Tsushima, a former welfare minister. Now that Nukaga has bowed out of the race, the Tsushima faction is expected to support Fukuda. The Tsushima faction has 64 Diet members. All the other factions but one led by Aso himself are also expected to support Fukuda, although some may still vote for Aso in defiance of their faction policies. The Aso faction is small, with only 16 Diet members.
Many LDP members are wary of the structural reforms under Koizumi and Abe, which they have blamed for social inequalities, including between rural and urban areas, one of major factors in the LDP's historic electoral drubbing in July. There are strong concerns within the party about a possible loss of power in the next general election for the House of Representatives, which must be held by September 2009 but is likely to be held much earlier, possibly this year.
Whichever candidate wins the race to step into Abe's shoes - Fukuda or Aso - the reform drive started by Koizumi and basically inherited by Abe will very likely lose momentum, if not be reversed completely. While having won a reputation as a hard-headed politician with a knack for adjusting policies among government ministries, Fukuda has often been criticized by some as too close to government bureaucrats.
If Fukuda wins the current leadership race, the LDP could face public criticism for choosing its - and hence the national - leader based on faction-oriented politics that most Japanese thought Koizumi had mothballed as a symbol of the old LDP and an obstacle to reform when he roared into office in 2001. Koizumi won the 2001 leadership race, thumping the leader of what was then the largest party faction, former prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. The faction then led by Hashimoto is now headed by Tsushima.
Aso may be trailing Fukuda, but with his gift of the gab and well-known penchant for comic books, he is more popular with the public than the no-nonsense Fukuda. Aso apparently pins his only hope on rallying more support from local party chapters. In fact, Koizumi won an unexpected come-from-behind victory over Hashimoto in the 2001 race buoyed by overwhelming support from local chapters.
Meanwhile, Abe, 52, was hospitalized on Thursday afternoon for an intestinal disorder and will require a hospital stay of at least a few more days to recover. When he announced his resignation on Wednesday, he cited his failure to obtain the DPJ's support for an extension of the Maritime Self-Defense Force's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of coalition military operations in Afghanistan.
The 2001 special law authorizing the refueling mission, which was originally effective for two years, has been extended three times - first in 2003 for two years, second in 2005 for a year and third in 2006 for a year. The DPJ has voted against each of the past three extensions. Now led by Ichiro Ozawa, a former LDP heavyweight, the opposition has vowed to block another extension by flexing its newly acquired majority in the Upper House.
The DPJ insists that the US-led operations in Afghanistan have no United Nations mandate and says that Japanese troops should be sent abroad only to participate in UN-led peacekeeping operations. It now appears almost certain that the refueling mission will be terminated, at least temporarily, when the law expires on November 1.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected].
Hisane Masaki is WSN Editor Japan.