Yasuo Fukuda emerged Friday as the clear favorite in the race to replace Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, in what is shaping up to be a two-man contest with LDP Secretary General Taro Aso.
Blindsided by Abe’s sudden announcement Wednesday that he intended to resign, the LDP hurriedly kicked off campaigning for a new party president on Friday.
The two men will officially register as candidates Saturday morning, but Fukuda, a former chief Cabinet secretary, emerged Friday as the front-runner after securing the backing of the leaders of almost every LDP faction, whose memberships taken as a whole amount to a majority of the party’s Diet members.
A total of 528 ballots — 387 from the Diet members and 141 from the party’s prefectural representatives — will be cast and counted on Sept. 23.
Thanks to the LDP’s dominance in the Lower House, which elects the prime minister, the man selected to head the party is virtually assured of becoming Japan’s next leader.
Whoever is chosen, however, will have to shoulder the heavy burden of righting a party dogged by money scandals and pull it out of the tailspin it entered after its emphatic defeat in the July Upper House election.
Fukuda, son of the late former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, spent Friday morning building up support in meetings with leaders of various LDP factions and other key lawmakers.
In contrast to the hawkish Abe, Fukuda is an advocate of more conciliatory policies toward Japan’s influential regional neighbors. Aso, on the other hand, is a close ally of Abe and shares several of his more hardline views on national security.
In a Friday morning meeting with his faction — the largest in the LDP and led by Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura — Fukuda expressed his willingness to run.
The 71-year-old House of Representatives member told his faction colleagues: “I have received words of encouragement from (fellow faction members) and I feel strongly that I should (run). I think (the LDP) is in a state of crisis and we must bear this in mind as we move forward in politics.”
After meeting with Fukuda on Friday morning, LDP faction leaders Makoto Koga, Taku Yamasaki and Sadakazu Tanigaki told reporters they agreed with his basic policies and offered their support.
Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga, who on Thursday expressed his intention to run in the presidential election, also met with Fukuda and later told reporters he had decided to withdraw and throw his support behind Fukuda instead.
Machimura told his faction that he had asked Fukuda to run for party president and that he had accepted.
“Fukuda is always calm and composed, and I think that he is truly the leader that the Japanese people are calling for,” Machimura said.
Speaking to reporters later in the day, Fukuda said he would continue pushing the structural reforms promoted by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, under whom he had served as chief Cabinet secretary.
But he also said he would listen to the voices of the people and focus on revitalizing rural areas, where voters are increasingly frustrated at being left behind as the nation’s economy booms in the wake of the Koizumi reforms.
“It is necessary to make adjustments in accordance with the changes in society,” Fukuda said.
Aso declared his candidacy during a news conference Friday afternoon.
“I will do my best until the race is over,” the 66-year-old Aso told a news conference. “It is my duty to run to avoid giving people the impression that the reforms promoted by Koizumi are being lost.”
While asserting that the structural reforms instituted by Koizumi and Abe improved the economy, Aso also acknowledged that the government must lend a hand to those who have suffered from the radical changes, namely, rural residents, small-company workers and pensioners.
Aso was critical of the factions that declared support for Fukuda even before the candidates had a chance to announce their campaign pledges, calling it “backroom politics.”
Fukuda later brushed off the criticism, saying, “I have met with various people to discuss mainly policies. . . . It’s not like we’re bid-rigging or anything. . . . I don’t think we should be talking (about the presidential election) on such a low level.”
Aso was foreign minister in Abe’s first Cabinet and was appointed LDP secretary general — the No. 2 post in the party — at the end of August after Abe reshuffled the Cabinet and party executives.
The outspoken conservative placed second to Abe in the party’s leadership race in September 2006 and had been widely seen as the likely front-runner in the next party presidential election.
But Fukuda’s decision to run, coupled with increasing support within the party for him, has placed Aso in a tough position.
Aso heads a 16-member faction and needs to gain the votes of members of other factions to win the election.
But Aso’s closeness to Abe may prove a liability, whose abrupt departure Wednesday shocked the nation. Party members hold Aso partly responsible for the current state of confusion in the political arena.
Fukuda tops poll
Public opinion favors former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda over Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Taro Aso to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, according to a nationwide survey conducted Thursday and Friday by Kyodo News.
Among the 1,059 randomly selected eligible voters, Fukuda was the favorite with 28.1 percent, while Aso was second with 18.7 percent.
Regarding Japan’s refueling operations in the Indian Ocean, 47.9 percent said the special antiterrorism law authorizing the mission should be extended beyond the Nov. 1 expiration date, while 42.5 percent opposed the extension.
Asked when the next House of Representatives election should be held, nearly 70 percent said they want the Lower House dissolved for a general election by the first half of 2008. The chamber’s current term continues until September 2009.