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Japan names new prime minister

Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, a fiscal hawk, will become Japan's sixth prime minister in five years. He faces challenges including a stagnant economy and post-tsunami rebuilding.

August 29, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Japanese Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, left, shakes hands with his closest rival, Trade Minister Banri Kaieda, whom he defeated for the ruling party's leadership post.
Japanese Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, left, shakes hands with his… (Toshifumi Kitamura / Getty…)

Reporting from Seoul — In a now-familiar political ritual, Japan's ruling party decided Monday who should be the country's new prime minister — the sixth in five years — and lead the effort to overcome problems including a stagnant economy and a lingering nuclear crisis.

In a tense runoff vote, Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, known as a tightfisted fiscal hawk, defeated his closest rival, Trade Minister Banri Kaieda, even though the latter had the backing of a powerful but publicly disgraced party boss.

The 54-year-old Noda replaces outgoing Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who resigned Friday after 15 months in office. Kan had endured criticism that he mishandled Japan's response to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The natural disaster led to a series of meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Because of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan's majority in parliament, the runoff victory made Noda the de facto prime minister — to be confirmed by a parliamentary vote. He was first elected to parliament in 1993.

Noda and Kaieda were forced to square off in a second-round vote for the party leadership Monday after none of the five candidates won a majority in the initial round. Noda won the runoff by a narrow margin among the party's members in parliament, 215 to 177.

Like many Japanese elections, Monday's race was a backroom tug of war between party factions. Kaieda carried the formidable backing of Ichiro Ozawa, a power broker who faces trial related to the reporting of political donations.

Noda, a fiscal conservative favored by investors, carried the day. Now he faces challenges that include rebuilding from the March disaster, forging a new energy policy, curbing a public debt that has ballooned to twice the size of Japan's $5-trillion economy, and a surging yen that threatens exports. The new leader will also need to mend fences with the U.S. over the relocation of an American military base on Okinawa.

So far the DPJ has lacked a cohesive vision on how to tackle the post-tsunami rebuilding effort. Noda seemed indecisive on how he would finance the daunting task. While initially supporting a tax hike, he has since backed off.

Noda also faces a precarious political landscape that includes a divided parliament and internal party backbiting. The result: No prime minister has lasted much longer than a year since 2006.

One Tokyo daily this weekend predicted that the new government would face the same deadlock that doomed Kan's administration.

The pressures of the job were already waiting even before the race's results were known. Not mentioning Noda by name, the environmental group Greenpeace released a statement early Monday calling on "Japan's incoming prime minister" to take steps to reduce the radiation effects on schoolchildren near the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant.

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