Yasuo Fukuda, a moderate, is chosen to lead Japan

Posted in Japan | 24-Sep-07 | Author: Norimitsu Onishi| Source: International Herald Tribune

Yasuo Fukuda, center, bowing to lawmakers after being elected president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Sunday in Tokyo.

TOKYO: Yasuo Fukuda, a mild-mannered political moderate known for his ability to build consensus behind the scenes, was chosen Sunday by Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party to become the country's next prime minister.

Facing one of its deepest crises in its half-century grip on power, the Liberal Democrats settled on Fukuda, 71, to steady a party wobbling from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's disastrous one-year government, his mysterious resignation 11 days ago and a surging opposition.

Fukuda, sometimes described as a foreign policy "dove," has long emphasized the importance of building strong ties with China and the rest of Asia and represents a break from the nationalist Abe and his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.

At home, experts say, Fukuda will be pressured to further slow down the political and economic reforms undertaken by Koizumi to shore up the party's traditional voting base.

"Today's Liberal Democratic Party is facing grave difficulties," Fukuda said in a short acceptance speech. "First of all, I will work to revitalize the Liberal Democratic Party. Then I would like to regain the people's trust and remake this into a party that can steadily carry out policies."

The party's national lawmakers and prefectural chapters handed Fukuda 330 out of 527 valid votes. His only rival, Taro Aso, 67, the party's secretary general who shared Abe's right-wing views, won 197 votes.

In reality, the party's bosses had already picked Fukuda a week earlier after a day and a half of intense negotiations in this city's exclusive restaurants and over cell phone calls. Although Japan's media had crowned Fukuda the country's next leader more than a week ago, the two candidates last week toured the country in joint appearances before general audiences that had no ballots in the party election.

The selection process harked back to the party's smoke-filled backroom days, reversing the relative openness of recent years. Fukuda was endorsed by eight of the party's nine factional bosses, who blame Koizumi's economic reforms, especially steep cuts in public works, for the party's devastating loss in July's election in the upper house of Parliament.

"The factions have staged a comeback - it's old-style politics again," said Ikuo Kabashima, a professor of politics at the University of Tokyo. "Mr. Fukuda, above all, symbolizes that. He is the exact opposite of Mr. Koizumi. We'll probably see more public works from now on, plenty of pork."

But in the short run, Fukuda's ascent as prime minister, which will be formalized in a vote by the Liberal Democrat-controlled lower house of Parliament on Tuesday, will fill the political vacuum created by Abe's abrupt resignation on Sept. 12.

Abe checked himself into a hospital Sept. 13 for what was supposed to be a three to four-day stay, and failed to appear at the party's election at its headquarters here Sunday afternoon.

Meanwhile, the government has neither transferred power out of Abe's hands nor explained his extended hospital stay, fueling speculation in the Japanese media that he is hiding out or that his condition is more serious than the gastrointestinal ailment and mental exhaustion cited initially.

As prime minister, Fukuda will not have to call a general election and seek a popular mandate until September 2009, though he has hinted that he may do so next spring after Parliament passes next year's budget.

The newly empowered opposition Democratic Party, which repeated its call Sunday for an immediate general election, is expected to try to force a general election by blocking the extension of a Japanese naval mission in the Indian Ocean to help in the American-led war in Afghanistan. A special law permitting that mission, passed in 2001 to circumvent Japan's pacifist Constitution, expires on Nov. 1.

Fukuda said that he would push to extend the mission. In general, however, he is regarded as more cautious than Abe in military matters. Such Abe priorities as revising the Constitution are expected to be shelved. Fukuda has said that he has no intention of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial to Japan's war dead regarded as a symbol of Japanese militarism in much of Asia.

"Unlike Mr. Abe and Mr. Koizumi, he's clearly shown great understanding in dealing with China and South Korea, and problems like Yasukuni," said Kosei Ueno, a former Liberal Democratic lawmaker close to Fukuda.

A longtime employee at a Japanese oil company, Fukuda eventually quit to serve as a secretary to his father, Takeo, a prime minister in the late 1970s. He was first elected to the lower house of Parliament in 1990 and went on to serve as chief cabinet secretary to Koizumi.

Experts and opposition lawmakers say that Fukuda, as the consensus candidate of the party's faction leaders, will serve as a caretaker until the party can regroup.

"The faction leaders made their selection on the basis of who's easy to control," said Muneo Suzuki, a former Liberal Democratic lawmaker who now heads a small opposition party. "As a result, if the question is whether Mr. Fukuda can take the initiative and govern, he can't."

Fukuda said that he will pursue the economic and political reforms that started under Koizumi but lagged under Abe. Further backpedaling would jeopardize the changes many experts say are needed to boost Japan's productivity and reduce its fiscal deficit. But many within Fukuda's party want to increase spending to recapture their traditional rural voters, who deserted them in July's election.

Ueno said that Fukuda was not the "type" to buckle under pressure and would follow his "own way of thinking." But Fukuda lacks the charisma and personal popularity that empowered Koizumi to carry out policies often opposed by his own party. He is also a generation older than Abe, whose initial popularity rested partly on the fact that he was Japan's first leader born after the end of World War II.

Known for making elusive and sometimes cynical comments, Fukuda often comes across as dour in public. "I don't think I can exercise Mr. Koizumi's kind of leadership," Fukuda said in a news conference last week.

He said he wanted to lead instead by gaining the people's understanding, adding, "I think leadership will emerge as a result."