TOKYO, September 22 – Japan’s ruling party Monday chose conservative Taro Aso to be the country’s next prime minister, tasking him with steering Asia’s largest economy away from recession and running in high-risk elections.
Aso, 68, an outspoken former foreign minister, easily won the party’s leadership election, paving the way for him to succeed Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who stepped down three weeks ago amid plunging approval ratings.
"We are now standing at the starting line faced with new difficulties. My duty is to meet people’s expectations," Aso said after winning the vote.
The flamboyant but gaffe-prone politician, who supports public spending to revive the Japanese economy, won in his fourth try for the top job in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), defeating four other candidates.
Aso saluted his rivals as he was proclaimed the winner at the vote inside the LDP headquarters, where the walls are filled with giant portraits of other leaders from the party that has ruled Japan almost continuously since 1955.
"From this moment on, there is no conflict among the five candidates who ran in the election," said Aso, who has charmed the public with his unabashed love of comic books.
Aso received 351 out of the 527 votes, party election Chief Hideo Usui said. Kaoru Yosano, the minister for economic and fiscal policy and a critic of Aso’s economic policies, trailed in second place at 66 votes.
The other candidates included former defence minister Yuriko Koike, who was the first woman to seek to become Japan’s prime minister. She came in third with 46 votes.
Aso enjoyed strong support in struggling rural areas as he has promised to use public money to stimulate the economy, a break from a long push in the LDP for free-market reforms, which Koike had pledged to bring in.
Rivals accused Aso of putting Japan’s ailing finances further at risk, and popular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who championed economic reforms during his 2001-2006 tenure, openly backed Koike.
Aso is thought likely to take advantage of the moment to call snap general elections, possibly for as early as late October, in the hope of thwarting an increasingly popular opposition.
But some pundits doubt whether the LDP leadership race did much to incite enthusiasm among the general public.
"The LDP set fire to its own house and invited people to watch," said Jiro Yamaguchi, a politics professor at Hokkaido University, referring to Fukuda’s sudden resignation.
The leadership race came as Japan wrestles with the impact of the global financial crisis and a scandal over pesticide-laced rice that was served to hospital patients and schoolchildren.
"It has left the impression among people that they are leaving important issues unattended while jostling for power," Yamaguchi said.
Aso is expected to be installed by parliament on Wednesday.
General elections must be held by September next year, but calling a snap poll could also be a risky strategy for the LDP.
The party last year for the first time lost control of the upper house of parliament, and the Fukuda government’s approval rating last week stood at a mere 15.6 percent.
His popularity plunged after he raised medical costs for the elderly, whose growing number is badly straining public finances.
The opposition has promised to scrap the medical plan and Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe hinted recently that Aso would do so as well.
At its own convention Sunday, the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan gave another two-year term to its leader Ichiro Ozawa, 66, a veteran political tactician who stormed out of the LDP in 1993.
Ozawa vowed to become prime minister and called upcoming elections a "last chance" for Japan to change.
News reports said that Aso would likely give posts to his defeated rivals in a bid to ensure party unity, including keeping Yosano as fiscal and economic policy minister.
The other candidates were military expert Shigeru Ishiba and younger-generation reformist Nobuteru Ishihara.