Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Japan turns to the older generation as ruling party stands at edge of abyss

Thousands of people braved scorching sunshine in central Tokyo to hear speeches by the two men campaigning to become Japan's next prime minister in the oddest election in the country's recent history.

One of the candidates has already conceded defeat and the other says he is too old to be leader. But both say they are running because their party, which has governed Japan for half a century, is standing at the edge of the abyss.



Taro Aso, a former foreign minister, has admitted he has no chance of beating his rival, Yasuo Fukuda, and replacing Shinzo Abe, who is in hospital. "I have decided to run if only for the sake of holding an open election," Mr Aso told Japanese television.



For some conservatives, that admission was a huge disappointment. As Japan absorbed the shock of Mr Abe's abrupt resignation last week, Mr Aso was briefly the frontrunner to lead the Liberal Democrats (LDP) out of perhaps its worst crisis in 50 years. But the swashbuckling 66-year-old, as famous for his controversial bon mots as his obsession with manga comics, has been politically hobbled by his association with the deeply unpopular outgoing Prime Minister.



That leaves Mr Fukuda, who is five years his senior. "I'm too old," Mr Fukuda said on television. "But the party and the country are facing an emergency situation so I will do what I must do."



About 55 per cent of LDP lawmakers say they will vote in Mr Fukuda as party president on Sunday, adding to his overwhelming support among party factions and making him almost certain to become the next prime minister. But he may live to regret taking on the job.



Mr Fukuda must rescue his party from support rates hovering around 30 per cent, deal with a huge crisis in public pensions and fulfil his promise to deal with a growing wealth gap.



Many wonder if Mr Fukuda, 71, has the energy to deal with this crisis, but he certainly has the background. Like so many in the nepotistic world of Japanese government, he is a second-generation politician, the son of the former prime minister Takeo Fukuda (1976-78).



His father earned a reputation as a hawkish leader, but Mr Fukuda has emerged as an unlikely dove. While serving under former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi he opposed his boss's annual pilgrimages to the Yasukuni war memorial, and he says he will not go if elected to the top job.



One thing that won't change is the LDP's rock-solid support for the US-Japan military alliance. "Our relationship with the US is the cornerstone of Japan's foreign policy," Mr Fukuda said. Thus looms a potentially epic battle over Japan's controversial refuelling mission for US warships in the Indian Ocean.

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