Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda abruptly announced Monday night he will resign.
Calling an emergency news conference, Fukuda said he came to the conclusion that a new leader would be better able to deal with the divided Diet in which the ruling coalition has found it difficult to pass its legislative agenda.
During the last Diet session, the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc repeatedly collided head-on with the opposition parties that control the Upper House.
“When taking into consideration that the lives of the public come first, we must not create a political vacuum by political horse-trading,” Fukuda said. “On this occasion, we must promote policies with a new lineup — that is my conclusion and I have decided today to resign.”
Opposition party leaders immediately criticized Fukuda as “irresponsible,” saying he is relinquishing his post without giving any convincing reasons to the voters.
“If you consider (my resignation) irresponsible, I would have to stay on until everything was done,” Fukuda said.
“As long as some opposition parties are trying to prevent me (from continuing) . . . I think it would cause a lot of confusion.”
In July 2007, the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, scored a landslide victory and the opposition camp seized control of the Upper House. From that point on, the Diet has been divided and the ruling coalition has struggled to enact its bills.
Compounding his problems, Fukuda’s position was called into question by the approval ratings of his Cabinet, which have plunged to historically low levels.
A general election must be held by September 2009 at the latest, when the current term of Lower House members expires.
Many in the ruling coalition had started expressing concern they could suffer a crushing defeat if Fukuda remained in his post, tacitly putting pressure on him to resign sometime before the general election.
Fukuda said he believes a new prime minister to be chosen from the LDP will be better positioned to handle expected Diet battles with opposition forces because his successor will likely receive higher approval ratings — at least for now.
He said low “support ratings for the Cabinet may be one factor” behind his decision to step down.
A likely candidate to succeed Fukuda is LDP Secretary General Taro Aso, believed to be more popular than Fukuda with the public thanks to his frank and sometimes humorous way of speaking when delivering speeches.
The LDP is expected to soon hold a presidential election to choose a new president, and the winner will be elected as prime minister in the Diet as the LDP-led ruling bloc holds a majority in the powerful Lower House, which takes priority in the election of a prime minister.
The out-of-the-blue announcement mirrored the abrupt resignation of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, less than a year ago.
Abe suddenly stepped down last September in a move that drew heavy public criticism and deepened distrust in politicians. Abe later cited bad health as the reason for his resignation.
Fukuda is not a typical politician obsessed with power.
He had a long career as a corporate employee at a petroleum company before becoming a Lower House member in 1990, when he was already in his 50s.
The DPJ “caused a lot of trouble for me in the divided Diet,” Fukuda told the news conference. He also recalled the problems he has faced since first taking office.
“Honestly speaking, ever since the beginning, piles of problems like political funds, pension records, hepatitis C and the Defense Ministry scandals emerged one after another,” Fukuda said. “I was swamped trying to resolve such issues.”