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Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008

Aso elected LDP leader in landslide

With the prime ministership assured, focus turns to election

Staff writer

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party chose Taro Aso as its 23rd president Monday, hoping to regain public popularity and win the next general election.

Aso was handed a landslide victory, collecting 351 out of 527 votes cast by LDP Diet members and party prefectural chapters. Finishing second was economic and fiscal policy minister Kaoru Yosano with 66 votes, followed by the first female candidate, Yuriko Koike, with 46.

Former policy chief Nobuteru Ishihara got 37 votes, while former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba collected 25.

Aso is set to be elected prime minister Wednesday and is expected to form a Cabinet that evening.

"I believe it is Taro Aso's fate that I am standing here today," Aso said after the vote. But "it is only after we win the general election that I will have carried out my fate."

The 68-year-old Aso told fellow party members it is the LDP, not the Democratic Party of Japan that has the power to push through policies to ease the public's troubles and fears.

"It is our responsibility and our duty to fulfill our mission, our fate," Aso said. "And I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude for being given the opportunity to lead the battle."

Out of the 141 votes distributed to the prefectural chapters, Aso received 134, more than 95 percent of the total. Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba got four votes, economic and fiscal policy minister Kaoru Yosano, two, former policy chief Nobuteru Ishihara, one, and Yuriko Koike, none.

"Aso has wide support among the public . . . and the LDP hoped this presidential election would have the stage effects to liven up the atmosphere," Hideo Otake, a political science professor at Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto. "The LDP aimed to use the election as a way to appeal to the public" to prepare for the upcoming general election.

The prime minister alone has the power to dissolve the Lower House and call for a general election. Attention now turns to when Aso will dissolve the lower chamber.

The LDP and New Komeito coalition has been angling for an election as early as late October, but Aso has repeatedly stressed the need to pass the supplementary budget in the forthcoming extraordinary Diet session in the face of the international financial crisis.

"There is no doubt that the LDP will try to use the momentum (of the presidential election) to hold a general election," Otake said. "Public support should go up a little bit and I think (the LDP) will risk (holding an election). Besides, the opinion polls say Aso is more popular than Ichiro Ozawa," the leader of the DPJ, the largest opposition force.

Another reason the LDP may hold the election as soon as possible would be to prevent Aso from making contentious statements, critics say.

In 2007, he said "even people with Alzheimer's can tell" that Japanese rice is more expensive in China than Japan. More recently in August, he angered the DPJ by comparing the party to the Nazis.

Otake, however, believes Aso's "slips" are not necessarily unpopular with the public. On the contrary, it brings to mind outspoken Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and popular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

"Aso tends to directly say his honest opinion, creating a stir . . . but that may be why he is liked by the public considering that politicians never show their true colors," Otake said. "Aso is different from the usual politician — his style, the fact that he likes 'manga' (comic books) and is popular with young people, and how he says things with a twist."

The big question is whether Aso can meet the expectations of the LDP and lead the party through a time when public support is sinking and win the general election. Critics, however, say that will be difficult.

"All I can say is the possibility that the LDP may win has gone up with Aso" as president, Otake said. "If (Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda) had remained, the odds would have been against" the LDP.

Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, expressed disappointment with Aso, saying he is trying too hard not to make any slips of the tongue.

"Aso is walking a difficult tight rope — on the one hand if he cracks a joke, he could be hit for making inappropriate remarks, and if he plays it straight (his statements) may not be interesting," Kawakami said. "It will be a delicate strategy."

Kawakami said Aso needs to show his "Aso color" on policies, like ramming the antiterrorism bill through the Diet to enable the Maritime Self-Defense Force to continue refueling multinational warships in the Indian Ocean.

In a divided Diet in which the opposition parties led by the DPJ control the Upper House, the ruling coalition needs to hold a second vote in the lower chamber and can ram bills through with a two-thirds majority.

The LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc currently has such a majority, but critics say there is no way the coalition together will win the same amount of seats in the looming election.

"If the current situation doesn't change, in which it is hard to see what Aso wants to do and amid various scandals of the agriculture ministry and pension-related issues, the LDP-New Komeito (coalition) could possibly lose its majority" in the Lower House, Kawakami said.

When Fukuda suddenly made his resignation announcement Sept. 1, Aso wasted no time expressing his intention to run for the fourth time.

In an attempt to separate itself from the DPJ, which just handed Ozawa an unopposed third term Sunday, LDP lawmakers sought to have multiple candidates and hold policy discussions.

But from early on, Aso's victory was a given. And despite the five-candidate lineup — including the first woman candidate — the debates ended on a subdued tone, as the hopefuls failed to differentiate themselves from each other.

Critics say the LDP presidential race ended "halfway."

But "even if you know you are going to lose, it is an election that creates the possibility of becoming a prime minister," Otake said. "Considering the future 10 or 20 years from now, it (may help) to run for name recognition."

Meiji Gakuin University's Kawakami criticized the election, saying none of the candidates were able to liven things up.

"The presidential election seemed like a staged event, with lots of fancy decorations on the outside but with no substance," Kawakami said. "The only people who were getting into the swing were the Diet members whose careers depend on" the winner.

Taro Aso's biography

Kyodo News

• Sept. 20, 1940 — Born in Fukuoka Prefecture.

• March 1963 — Graduates from Gakushuin University.

• May 1973 — Becomes president and CEO of Aso Cement Co.

• July 1976 — Competes in skeet-shooting at Montreal Olympic Games.

• October 1979 — Wins first Lower House seat.

• November 1996 — Heads Economic Planning Agency.

• January 2001 — Becomes state minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy.

• April 2001 — Named LDP policy chief after losing out to Junichiro Koizumi in LDP presidential race.

• September 2003 — Takes up post of internal affairs and communications minister.

• October 2005 — Becomes foreign minister.

• September 2006 — Defeated by Shinzo Abe in LDP leadership race.

• August 2007 — Becomes LDP secretary general. September 2007 — Runs in third LDP presidential race but loses to Yasuo Fukuda.

• August — Assumes post of LDP secretary general for second time.

• Sept. 22 — Elected LDP president to succeed Fukuda.

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