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Japan PM resigns over US base, scandals; ruling party scrambles to find new leader

TOKYO (AP) — The hasty departure of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama after only eight months in office could paralyze Japanese politics or force the creation of a new ruling coalition, analysts said Wednesday, with key elections looming and the battle over the future of a major U.S. military base still unresolved.

Hatoyama's Democratic Party, which will name a new chief Friday, moved quickly to keep Hatoyama's resignation from creating political chaos in the world's second-largest economy.

Several names emerged as possible candidates to succeed Hatoyama, including Finance Minister Naoto Kan, a seasoned progressive veteran with a relatively clean record, and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada. Kan said he intends to run.

"We cannot allow a vacuum to form," said Ichiro Ozawa, a co-founder of the Democrats who also announced his resignation Wednesday. "We will have a new leader by the end of the week, and a new administration by next week."

But analysts said Hatoyama leaves the party a thorny legacy.

Hatoyama said he would resign because of a funding scandal and his failure to keep a campaign promise to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma off the southern island of Okinawa, a flip-flop that infuriated Okinawans and defined Hatoyama for many Japanese voters as a weak leader unable to stand up to Washington.

"He created a lot of distrust, both within Japan and in Washington," said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Tokyo's Nihon University. "I think it was the base issue that brought him down, and the funding scandal sealed his fate."

Hatoyama acknowledged Wednesday he had lost the trust of the nation.

"The public has gradually stopped listening to me," he said.

His resignation comes just ahead of an election next month for half of the seats in parliament's upper house that could test its now fragile voter mandate.

Some analysts saw Hatoyama's resignation as a pre-emptive bid to help the party — his Cabinet has garnered so little support in public opinion polls recently that he is seen by many as an election liability. But if the party, an eclectic mix of progressives and former ruling party rebels, does poorly, Hatoyama's successor could have the same fate — creating further uncertainty.

"I think they will have to form a new coalition," said Takehiko Yamamoto, an international relations professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. "They are not looking good going into the next elections."

Opposition leaders said Hatoyama's resignation proves the previously untested Democrats aren't fit to govern.

"He quit without solving anything," said Sadaaki Tanigaki, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled Japan for most of the post-World War II era before Hatoyama toppled it. "He just threw up his hands and quit."

Tanigaki said he would seek snap elections in the lower house as well. But it was not clear how well the Liberal Democrats would do at the polls — they had similar problems before the Democrats took over. Hatoyama is Japan's fourth prime minister in four years.

Promising to bring new life to Japan's moribund status quo, Hatoyama, the scion of a wealthy family who has a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford, swept to power in elections last August, dealing a stinging defeat to the Liberal Democrats — who represent conservatives and big business. The victory was hailed as the beginning of a two-party system in Japan after decades of almost complete dominance by the LDP.

But his honeymoon ended quickly.

He and Ozawa — the public faces of the Democratic party — were hit with money scandals shortly after taking office, including a political funding scandal in which two of Hatoyama's aides were convicted of falsifying political contribution reports.

Questions about his ethics increased after investigators found Hatoyama received 15 million yen ($170,000) a month from his mother to support his political activities — although he said he had no knowledge of the contributions until the prosecutors' investigation.

More crippling for Hatoyama, however, was pressure from Washington throughout his term that forced him to back away from a campaign pledge to move the Futenma base, an important airstrip and helicopter hub, off the southern island of Okinawa.

Hatoyama's failure to stand up to Washington, which insisted a replacement base be built on Okinawa, infuriated Okinawans, who host more than half of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, and generated the perception among mainstream Japanese voters that Hatoyama lacked leadership and credibility.

"The fact that the U.S. was unhappy was a big influence," said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus. "He looked incompetent because he made a lot of noise and didn't get anything."

As opposition leader, Hatoyama vociferously called for a more equal relationship with the United States. Soon after becoming prime minister he said he wanted to re-examine a 2006 deal between the Liberal Democrats and Washington that would keep most of the base functions on Okinawa, but move them to a less-crowded area.

That effort crumbled last week, when Hatoyama caved in and said he would accept most of the 2006 agreement, prompting one of his two coalition partners to quit the government.

Opposition to the 2006 agreement, even with Hatoyama's largely symbolic revisions, will likely continue to dominate the political agenda.

Washington is Japan's most important ally and a major trading partner, and few expect Hatoyama's successor to risk further changing the 2006 pact or further distancing themselves from the U.S., though protests on Okinawa will almost certainly continue.

"The next Cabinet will have to deal with it," said Yamamoto. "We will be seeing a good deal of political insecurity over the next few months."

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Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi, Shino Yuasa, Jay Alabaster and Malcolm Foster contributed to this report.