By JOSEPH COLEMAN
The Associated Press
Wednesday, September 20, 2006 2:52 AM
TOKYO -- Nationalist Shinzo Abe became head of Japan's ruling party by a landslide Wednesday, a victory expected to lead to his election as prime minister next week.
Abe won 464 of the 702 votes counted, a majority of 66 percent. Foreign Minister Taro Aso came in a distant second with 136 votes and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki garnered 102 votes.
By winning the three-year term as Liberal Democratic Party president, Abe, a proponent of a hard line against North Korea, and a more militarily assertive Japan, all but guarantees his election as premier in the vote in parliament on Sept. 26.
"From now on, I would like to join everyone in helping Mr. Abe win the public trust," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Abe's mentor, said minutes after the vote. Abe stood up and quietly bowed in all directions when the results were read.
Abe, 51, would be Japan's youngest postwar prime minister and the first born after World War II. He is relatively inexperienced, having joined the parliament in 1993 and assumed his first Cabinet position only a year ago.
The son of a foreign minister and grandson of a prime minister, Abe has campaigned on forging a more confident Japan. He is expected to seek to revise the pacifist constitution to give the military more freedom of action and bolster the security alliance with Japan's top ally, the United States.
Despite his inexperience, Abe came to the vote with key essentials for victory: high support ratings inside and outside the party and the blessing of Koizumi, who remains widely popular after five years in office.
Because Abe's victory appeared certain, the competition has been lackluster. Challengers such as Tanigaki and Aso never came close to rivaling him in popularity or a vision for Japan's future.
The lack of competition, however, has led to a lack of clarity about Abe's policies.
One looming question for Japan's neighbors is how far Abe will push his vision of a country freed from the restraining legacy of World War II, in which Tokyo's attempt at regional hegemony left Japan and much of Asia in ruins.
Abe, for instance, supports revisionist history textbooks that teach students to take pride in their nation rather than focus on the dark accounts of Japanese atrocities and aggression. He is also a proponent of the Yasukuni war shrine, which honors war criminals among the country's war dead.
He has compounded this conservative image by questioning whether every prime minister must repeat Japan's standard apology for its wartime actions. When North Korea tested several missiles in July, Abe suggested a look into whether the constitution would allow Japan to conduct a pre-emptive military strike.
It was unclear how that approach would affect Japan's troubled relations with China and South Korea, two victims of Japanese aggression who have refused to meet with Koizumi because of his visits to the Tokyo war shrine.
If he ultimately becomes prime minister, Abe will take the helm of a Japan in transition.
After five years under Koizumi, reforms have made Japan a more competitive market, powering the economy out of a decade-long slowdown but also widening an increasingly troubling gap between rich and poor.
Japan already has started shedding its postwar pacifism. Koizumi pushed for _ and won _ the power to dispatch the military in unprecedented non-combat roles to help U.S.-led missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite domestic opposition.