Aso leads race to be Japan's next PM

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The Independent Online

Hawkish former foreign minister Taro Aso leads the race to become Japanese prime minister, analysts and media said today, after unpopular Yasuo Fukuda became the second leader to resign abruptly in less than a year.

With a policy vacuum threatening an economy teetering on the brink of recession, 67-year-old Aso said he was a suitable candidate to govern the country.

If he wins the leadership on his fourth attempt, the comic book fan and former Olympic sharpshooter will be Japan's 11th prime minister in 15 years.

"I think (Fukuda) felt he had work that was left undone, and he said he wanted it to be carried out," Aso told a news conference, ahead of a leadership vote in three weeks.

"As someone who discussed these issues with him, including the economic package, I think I have the credentials to take that on," said the veteran lawmaker, currently LDP secretary-general.

Fukuda, 72, had been struggling to cope with a divided parliament where opposition parties have the power to delay legislation, and his sudden exit raised questions about his conservative party's ability to cling to power or even hold together after ruling Japan for most of the past 53 years.

He produced an economic package last week, with a promise of tax cuts and $16.5bn in new spending this year to help ease the pain of high oil and food prices, but only saw his government's ratings slide further.

Aso is seen as the LDP's best bet to rebuild voter support. However, some analysts note the same was said when he lost to Fukuda in the LDP's last leadership race last year, when previous prime minister Shinzo Abe also suddenly quit.

The departure of Fukuda, a moderate conservative who favours close ties with Japan's Asian neighbours, does not automatically mean an early election as the LDP dominates parliament's lower house, which will vote on the leadership.

However, the next prime minister might go to the polls ahead of a deadline of September next year to take advantage of any recovery in public support.

A complete deadlock in parliament, where the opposition controls the upper house and can stall legislation, could also force the prime minister to call an election reluctantly.

The ruling coalition is almost certain to lose seats, if not its majority, in an election but voters say they want a turn to pick their government.

"As two LDP prime ministers resigned in a row, I think it is necessary to call a general election within this year," said Chika Hasegawa, 45, a patent agency employee.

"The LDP is now in tatters, why not let the Democratic Party take charge and see how it goes."

If the LDP passes over the outspoken Aso again, other potential leadership contenders are Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano, known for his commitment to fixing Japan's tattered finances, and conservative Yuriko Koike, who was briefly last year the country's first female defence minister.

Popular female lawmaker Seiko Noda, 47 and currently the minister in charge of consumer affairs, has also been mentioned as a possible fresh face at the top, as has former administrative reform minister Nobuteru Ishihara, son of outspoken Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara.