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In Japan, focus turns to a successor

Ruling party must move quickly to find a new premier. That may favor Abe ally and fellow nationalist Taro Aso.

September 13, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

The scramble to replace weary and beaten Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began in Tokyo's political corridors today, with members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party questioning whether their salvation lies in choosing a leader who provides experience and continuity, or finding one who offers change.

They have little time to make up their minds.

Abe's sudden decision Wednesday to walk away from politics has cast the once-indomitable LDP adrift. Anxious to fill the power vacuum, the party said it would select a new leader by a vote of parliamentary members and top organizers from across the country next week, though some were seeking to push back the ballot.

The short span of the campaign seems to favor Taro Aso, 66, an Abe ally and former foreign minister who has greatly increased his clout inside the party since being appointed secretary-general, its top political job, this summer. But Aso's vulnerability lies in that very association with the short, dismal Abe era, which was remarkable mostly for its incompetence. The last year has been defined by a stream of scandals over the abuse of political funds that led to four ministerial resignations and the suicide of another Cabinet member. Abe was unable to act decisively to calm public anxiety when it was disclosed that the government had lost the records of about 50 million pension fund payments, a blunder that contributed to the public's view that Japan was being led by amateurs.

The manner of Abe's departure was consistent with his governing style: It had the appearance of a decision made in haste, if not outright panic. It reversed his vow made a day before to fight to keep his job despite the electoral thrashing his party took in recent elections that put the opposition Democratic Party of Japan in control of parliament's upper house, where it can stymie the government's agenda.

In a rambling resignation news conference, Abe was unable to clearly explain the reasons or timing for his decision to quit. The performance generated widespread scorn from all sides, with even LDP politicians accusing him of acting irresponsibly. Commentators likened his decision to a child faking illness on the day of a school exam.

Abe checked himself into a Tokyo hospital later Wednesday.

There were suggestions that the 52-year-old was emotionally spent from the strain of the job and had lost his nerve.

"He didn't resign for any political reasons; he is simply exhausted, physically and mentally," said Hisahiko Okazaki, a former ambassador and advisor to Abe. "He just gave up."

Aso is widely seen as a politician made of tougher stuff, more pugnacious and dynamic than Abe. (Aso's aides privately mocked Abe's ineptness in sports, such as an infamously anemic ceremonial first pitch he once dribbled to the plate before a baseball game.)

Like Abe, Aso hails from an aristocratic political clan: His maternal grandfather was a postwar prime minister.

Aso also emerges from the same nationalist school that pushes for a Japan that is less apologetic about its imperial past and more assertive about its current global role. He publicly criticized the verdicts at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal and had been a regular visitor to controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including some who are designated as war criminals.

Both he and Abe toned down their revisionist rhetoric in the last year as they tried to rebuild Japan's relations with China and South Korea.

Aso became a leading advocate of so-called soft power, arguing the country should follow up on the goodwill it reaps from the popularity of its manga comic books and anime animated films. Author of a political manifesto called "Awesome Japan" and a self-professed manga lover, Aso created an awards ceremony for the best manga created outside Japan, likening it to a "Nobel Prize."

But Aso's political base in the party overlaps with Abe's, and it remains to be seen whether a party facing a possible election in the coming months will risk choosing a candidate so closely associated with the disasters of the last year. (The LDP leader is guaranteed election as prime minister because the party controls parliament's lower house.)

"Abe, the worst leader, is gone, but Aso is the second worst," said Minoru Morita, a respected political commentator. "He doesn't represent change, and he won't be a tough opponent for the opposition."

Already, Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga has said he would run. The party could also turn to Sadakazu Tanigaki, a former finance minister who ran third behind Abe and Aso in the race for the top job last year. Tanigaki boasts credentials as an economic and social reformer, attributes that would make him more popular with voters than with the vested interests inside the LDP that feel threatened by those reforms.

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