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Moderate is set to become Japanese premier

Yasuo Fukuda wins a vote to head the ruling party, a departure from the nationalist policies of outgoing Shinzo Abe.

September 24, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — In a vote that heralded a break from the ambitious nationalist policies of Japan's outgoing leader, Yasuo Fukuda was chosen Sunday as head of the governing Liberal Democratic Party.

Fukuda's selection virtually ensures that he will be elected prime minister on Tuesday by the lower house of parliament, which his party controls.

The party veteran defeated the hawkish former Foreign Minister Taro Aso, 330 votes to 197, in a poll of LDP lawmakers and top regional organizers. The choice appeared to reflect a desire for calm after a turbulent period in which the party's popular support slid and it lost control of the upper house to the Democratic Party of Japan.

Fukuda's rise follows the resignation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, announced two weeks ago. Abe repeatedly had asserted the need for a more assertive Japan that is less apologetic about its imperial history.

Fukuda advocates a less confrontational approach in Japan's dealings with China and North and South Korea. The more accommodating tone relegated him to the party's sidelines for the last year, as Abe and his more hard-line nationalist supporters set the national agenda.

In particular, Fukuda is expected to lower the harsh rhetoric that characterized Abe's dealings with North Korea. The tough talk was popular with the Japanese public, but marginalized the country as negotiations over the fate of North Korea's nuclear program gathered pace.

But Fukuda's resurrection is owed more to the general grumbling over the mess many believe Abe and his associates made of running the country. Fukuda won the leadership by portraying himself as a healer and steady manager who will focus on economic issues, addressing the prevailing sense that the benefits of Japan's economic recovery of the last four years have not been evenly shared.

The 71-year-old Fukuda is a veteran of the LDP's backrooms. After an early career in the oil industry, he entered politics as a secretary to his father, Takeo, who was prime minister in the late 1970s and was known as an advocate of expanding Japanese ties to Asia.

The younger Fukuda was elected to parliament in 1990 at age 53, and served as chief Cabinet secretary, the government's top spokesman, from 2000 to 2004.

Abe, 53, quit the top job after less than a year in office. He leaves a party stained by political scandals and chaotic stewardship, with a political agenda hostage to the opposition's control of the upper house.

Among the immediate issues the governing party faces is the need to win parliamentary support to renew the mandate of Japan's navy, known as the Maritime Self-Defense Forces, to participate in anti-terrorist operations in the Indian Ocean.

The opposition has vowed to block its renewal, which expires Nov. 1. Opinion polls show the public is roughly divided over the issue.

It remains to be seen whether the honeymoon usually enjoyed by new leaders will give Fukuda the leverage necessary to get the naval operation renewed.


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