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Fiscal conservative elected prime minister of Japan

Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda defeats Trade Minister Banri Kaieda to become Japan's sixth leader in five years. He inherits a stagnant economy and a continuing nuclear crisis.

August 29, 2011|By John M. Glionna | Los Angeles Times
  • Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda gives a speech shortly after he was elected as the new leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan during an election by the party lawmakers in Tokyo. The vote paves the way for Noda to be the next prime minister.
Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda gives a speech shortly after he was elected… (Hiro Komae / Associated…)

Reporting from Seoul — In a now familiar political ritual, Japan's ruling party on Monday picked a new prime minister -- the sixth in five years -- to lead the nation past a host of domestic ills, including a stagnant economy and a lingering nuclear crisis.

In a tense runoff vote, Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, known as a tight-fisted fiscal hawk, defeated his closest rival, Trade Minister Banri Kaieda, even though Kaieda's 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 just 15 months in office, carrying through on a promise to step down amid criticism that he had mishandled the nation'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, causing tens of thousands to be evacuated and casting Japan into national self-doubt over the future of nuclear power in its overall energy policy.

Noda, now the de facto prime minister by virtue of his ruling Democratic Party of Japan's majority in parliament's lower house, will be confirmed in a vote on Tuesday. He was first elected to parliament in 1993.

Yet Monday's party leadership vote among 398 parliamentary party members was not clear-cut. Noda and Kaieda were forced to square off in a runoff vote after none of the five candidates won a majority in the initial round. Noda won the second round by a narrow margin, 215 to 177.

Like many Japanese elections, Monday's race turned onto a backroom tug of war between rival factors of the Democratic Party of Japan. Kaieda carried the formidable backing of Ichiro Ozawa, a veteran but publicly shunned political mastermind who faces trial for misreporting political donations.

But 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 and curbing a public debt that has ballooned to twice the size of Japan's $5-trillion economy, including 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. Although initially supporting a tax hike, he has since backed off that stance.

"Let's do the utmost to tackle what we have promised, and if there's not enough money, we might ask the people to share the burden," he said before Monday's vote.

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.

john.glionna@latimes.com

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