With Premier on His Way Out, Japan Focuses on a Successor

Tokyo readers reach for a copies of a special edition reporting the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose year-long tenure was marked by scandal.
Tokyo readers reach for a copies of a special edition reporting the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose year-long tenure was marked by scandal. (By David Guttenfelder -- Associated Press)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 13, 2007

TOKYO, Sept. 13 -- The departure of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who stunned Japan on Wednesday by announcing that he was quitting after a year in power, appears likely to weaken his party's long hold on political power, embolden an already cocky opposition and stall economic reform.

A day after his declaration, Abe was treated at a hospital for an ailment unknown even to those in the government, officials said.

The prime minister had for weeks been a walking political disaster, embarrassed by scandals in his cabinet, unable to shake a reputation of incompetence and humiliated in a July election in the upper house of parliament.

Until Wednesday, though, Abe had insisted that he would not quit without a fight against the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which now has the votes in parliament to kill an Abe-backed anti-terrorism law. The law authorizes a refueling operation in the Indian Ocean -- a free gas station that has been Japan's primary contribution to U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan.

With his abrupt resignation, Abe has brought delay and a measure of chaos to the dispute about the future of the fueling operation, which President Bush and other leaders have urged Japan to continue.

Debate on the issue, which had begun this week, is on hold until the lower house of parliament, still controlled by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), can pick a new prime minister.

The front-runner for the position, in the view of many analysts here, is Taro Aso, a close ally and fellow hawk on security issues. A former foreign minister under Abe, he is a wealthy member of the Japanese political establishment and secretary general of the ruling party.

But Aso, 66, grandson of the prime minister who negotiated the peace treaty that ended the postwar U.S. occupation of Japan in 1952, is not considered likely to push aggressively for the economic changes that were launched by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and continued under Abe.

Aso declined to comment Wednesday about his interest in becoming prime minister, but analysts here said that if he got the job he might back away from reform efforts to deal with mountains of bad bank debt in Japan, while renewing the pork-barrel spending in rural areas that has given the ruling party its traditional power base. Aso said recently it was important to help rural areas hurt by deregulation.

That base has eroded substantially under Abe, so much so that the party's ability to govern has come into question.

"The LDP no longer has the ability to rule," said Minoru Morita, a longtime political analyst. "Politics will not move forward unless you have someone very capable at the top. There is no such person in the LDP."

The leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Ichiro Ozawa, used Abe's resignation announcement as an occasion to repeat his promise to kill the anti-terrorism law that allows Japan to pump free fuel into allied warships in the Indian Ocean.

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