TOKYO – A tough-talking former foreign minister emerged Tuesday as the top candidate to replace Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, whose sudden resignation has plunged Japan's ruling party into a leadership scramble and strengthened opposition demands for nationwide elections.
Fukuda, in office less than a year, shocked the country and much of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party by announcing in a late night news conference Monday he had decided to resign because he was unable to break a stalemate with the opposition that has slowed most of his policy objectives.
Fukuda — also plagued by chronically low public support ratings — was the second Japanese prime minister in a row to resign after less than a year on the job.
The opposition immediately criticized his decision as irresponsible and rash.
Yukio Hatoyama, a leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition bloc, said the ruling party had lost its mandate and that nationwide elections should be called.
"We should immediately dissolve the parliament and put our trust in the people," he said.
The ruling Liberal Democrats, however, huddled to show they were still in control.
The party, which has governed Japan throughout most of the post-World War II era, announced that it will hold elections to replace Fukuda as party president on Sept. 22, with campaigning to begin on Sept. 10. Their choice must be approved as prime minister by parliament, but a date for that vote has not been set.
Former Foreign Minister Taro Aso, a colorful character and the party's No. 2 official, immediately announced his intention to run, saying he feels he can succeed where Fukuda failed and that he has a track record of implementing policy and producing valuable ideas.
"I must assume leadership," Aso said. "I believe I am qualified to do so."
Aso hews to sharply conservative views and has a gruff, outspoken manner that apparently works well with voters. But his off-the-cuff comments have ruffled feathers at home and abroad. He once suggested that Taiwan benefited from being colonized by Japan in the first half of the 20th century. He also drew protests from Beijing for saying that China was a military threat.
Other possible candidates included Yuriko Koike, a former defense minister, and Seiko Noda, a member of Fukuda's Cabinet.
Whoever replaces Fukuda will face a difficult task.
Aso and the others were not expected to implement any major changes in the ruling party's foreign or economic policies if selected as the new leader. Aso said Tuesday he would largely follow Fukuda's platform.
But the Democratic Party of Japan — which is also centrist and includes many former ruling party leaders — has recently been winning new ground and now controls the upper house of parliament.
The Democrats have been criticized for lacking policies of their own, but have capitalized on voter frustration with the ruling party. With voters concerned about rising food and fuel prices — and a general dissatisfaction with the Liberal Democrats' seeming lack of solutions — calls for snap elections may be hard for the ruling party to ignore.
A general election must take place by September next year, but the prime minister can call one at any time.
"We are going to see snap elections soon, maybe around the end of this year. Holding elections is the only way to bring about a breakthrough for the political deadlock," said Hiroshi Kawahara, political science professor at Waseda University.
But calling elections would be a gamble for the Liberal Democrats.
"If snap elections take place, it will be a great chance for the DPJ to grab power," Kawahara said.
The Liberal Democrats, fearing losses at the polls, had tried desperately to turn things around under Fukuda, who just last week announced an $18 billion stimulus package to buoy the economy. Several weeks ago he reshuffled his Cabinet in an unsuccessful attempt to renew public faith in his government.
Aso has a more engaging personality than the often dour Fukuda, and some in the ruling party were clearly hoping that he would be a more attractive leader if elections cannot be avoided.
Aso was named just weeks ago as LDP secretary-general but, like Fukuda, he comes from solid political stock.
Aso's grandfather was Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who negotiated the peace treaty ending World War II. Aso also has an interesting profile. He went to the Olympics on Japan's skeet shooting team in Montreal in 1976 and is a well-known fan of comic books.
"Mr. Aso seems to be the front-runner at the moment," said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University. "But whether he is a capable prime minister is a different story."
Nakano said the current crisis underscores the LDP's deeper problems.
"Talent in the LDP has dried up, and the lack of capable leaders has become a chronic problem," he said. "It's the outcome of their complacency after decades-long, one-party domination. The LDP is in disarray and headed for an imminent fall."