Fukuda elected new LDP president

Nation's next leader defeats Aso 330-197 to take ailing party's reins



News photo
Yasuo Fukuda – joins his main contender, Taro Aso (left), and other members of the Liberal Democratic Party in shouting banzai after winning the party’s presidential race Sunday.

The 71-year-old House of Representatives member obtained 330 votes, or roughly 62 percent of the 527 valid votes cast by the LDP’s Diet members and representatives of its 47 prefectural chapters.

His sole contender, LDP Secretary General Taro Aso, managed to get 197 votes — much more than was widely forecast after Fukuda locked up support from most of the LDP’s factional leaders at the outset of the campaign.

“I will try to revive the Liberal Democratic Party and turn it into a party that can regain people’s trust and steadily implement its policies,” Fukuda told his colleagues at LDP headquarters in Tokyo after his victory was announced.

Fukuda is to be elected prime minister by the Diet on Tuesday after Abe’s Cabinet resigns en masse earlier in the day. The LDP commands a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives, which holds supremacy over the opposition-controlled House of Councilors in the election of prime ministers.

Fukuda, the eldest son of the late Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, will be Japan’s first prime minister whose father had also held the position.

His Cabinet, which he will form Tuesday, is expected to retain many of the members of Abe’s current lineup.

Sunday’s election was held among the LDP’s 387 Diet members and representatives from the party’s 47 prefectural chapters, which were given three votes each.

Final results show that Fukuda won 254 votes from Diet members and 76 from the local chapters, while the 67-year-old Aso received 132 Diet members’ votes and 65 local votes. One ballot was ruled invalid.

His term as LDP chief runs through September 2009 — the remainder Abe’s three-year tenure.

Despite his victory in the party race, Fukuda is expected to face a tough time in the current Diet session, where the opposition camp, which has controlled the Upper House since the July election, is itching to flex its muscles against the new administration.

The Democratic Party of Japan, leader of the opposition camp, has pledged it will block the extension of a special law on Japan’s naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean for coalition antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan. The law expires Nov. 1.

In a news conference Sunday evening, Fukuda said he would propose talks with the DPJ to seek ways for having the mission extended.

The LDP presidential race was held just about a year since Abe took office as Japan’s first prime minister born after World War II.

Abe, 53, announced Sept. 12 that he was stepping down to break the political logjam following the ruling coalition’s stunning defeat in the July election. He also expressed hope that his resignation could win opposition cooperation for the government’s bid to extend the Indian Ocean mission.

But his aides said Abe’s health — which they noted had worsened considerably in recent weeks — was behind his surprise decision to quit.

The day after his abrupt announcement, Abe was hospitalized for what doctors described as a stress-related stomach ailment.

Still in a Tokyo hospital Sunday, Abe did not attend the vote at LDP headquarters to pick his successor. He cast an absentee ballot on Saturday.

On Sunday, Shuzen Tanigawa, an LDP Upper House lawmaker, read a message from Abe in which he apologized to his party colleagues for “creating a political vacuum” with his sudden decision to quit.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano said Abe will probably be able to attend his last Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, adding that the prime minister will hold a news conference Monday evening at Keio University Hospital in Shinjuku Ward if permitted by his doctors.

“He said he wants to attend the Cabinet meeting,” Yosano told reporters after visiting Abe at the hospital to report the result of the LDP election.

The final decision will be made after Abe is seen by his doctor Monday morning, Yosano said.

Abe’s sudden move stunned the nation as it came at the outset of the 62-day extraordinary Diet session and a mere 2 1/2 weeks after he reshuffled the Cabinet to revamp his scandal-tainted administration following the election loss in July.

The youngest prime minister in the postwar period, Abe launched his administration in September last year with public approval ratings in the 60 percent to 70 percent range after taking over from the popular Junichiro Koizumi.

But toward the end of Abe’s administration, public support tumbled to roughly one-third of its peak following the government’s pension record-keeping fiasco and a series of political money scandals and gaffes involving his Cabinet members.

Aso, who had supported Abe first as his foreign minister and then as the LDP secretary general, was initially considered his most likely successor.

But shortly after Abe announced his intention to resign, Fukuda, chief Cabinet secretary under Koizumi, emerged as the front-runner as leaders of one LDP faction after another expressed their support for him. Meanwhile, criticism mounted that Aso should share the blame for the downfall of the Abe administration.

Despite losing, Aso said he was encouraged to see that he got more votes than anyone was expecting. He said he received votes from about 10 times as many lawmakers as there are in his faction, which is the smallest in the LDP.

But Aso said he does not plan to use the surprisingly high support as leverage to create an intraparty opposition group against Fukuda.

“Now that the party has elected the new president, I want to make efforts along with (Fukuda) to revive the party,” he told reporters.