Aso Chosen to Lead Japan

Taro Aso is sure to be a livelier premier than his predecessor.
Taro Aso is sure to be a livelier premier than his predecessor. (Shizuo Kambayashi - AP)
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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

TOKYO, Sept. 22 -- Taro Aso, a former foreign minister who delivers snappy speeches, reads manga comics and talks tough about China, was selected Monday to be Japan's next prime minister.

When his selection by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is formalized Wednesday in parliament, Aso, 68, a blue-blooded party stalwart whose grandfather was a prime minister, will be the third Japanese leader chosen by party officials in two years.

"Who else but our party can achieve policies in order to address the public's concerns?" Aso said after easily winning a party vote that had been viewed as a sure thing from the moment Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda abruptly announced Sept. 1 that he would quit.

As prime minister, Aso will not have to call an election until the fall of next year.

But Japan's economy is on the brink of recession, parliament is deadlocked and there is widespread public dissatisfaction with the ruling party. As a result, Aso may quickly dissolve parliament and schedule a nationwide election before his personal popularity dissipates. Recent polls show his approval ratings are slightly above 40 percent.

There has been widespread speculation that an election could be called as early as next month, although Aso said last week that would be too soon, given the turmoil in world financial markets.

In recent speeches, Aso has advocated the LDP's traditional cure-alls for what ails Japan -- tax cuts and increased public spending, especially on projects in rural areas that are the party's historic base.

He has warned about the dangers of secretive Chinese military spending, but he also reassured China that he would "not view with hostility" that country's economic development. China is Japan's biggest trading partner.

When an election does come, Aso's party will face off against one led by Ichiro Ozawa, 66, the newly reelected leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, which now controls the upper house of parliament.

Since Ozawa's party won control of that chamber 14 months ago, it has all but paralyzed parliament, embarrassed the ruling LDP at every opportunity and plotted to take over the powerful lower house of parliament, which picks the prime minister.

With polls suggesting that the Democratic Party has a legitimate shot at winning control of the lower house, the election is shaping up as one of the most competitive in decades. The LDP has dominated political life in Japan since the 1950s, making it a virtual one-party state.

Aso is certain to cut a more vivid, fun-loving figure in Japanese political life than his predecessor, the colorless Fukuda, whose approval ratings sometimes sagged below 20 percent.

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