Close race seen to select next Japanese leader

TOKYO — A close race was emerging for Japan’s ruling party to select a new leader to replace Prime Minister Naoto Kan, with five men declaring their candidacy today to compete in the weekend campaign.

Kan declared Friday that he would resign after nearly 15 months in office amid plunging app

roval ratings and political infighting within his own party and in parliament.

According to public opinion polls, the favorite to replace Kan is former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, but Trade and Economy Minister Banri Kaieda emerged as a strong contender after Japanese media reports said he had gained the support of veteran party power broker Ichiro Ozawa.

After the five candidates hold press conferences and debates today and Sunday, the DPJ’s 398 members of parliament will vote Monday to choose a new party chief, who will almost certainly become prime minister because of the party’s majority in the more powerful lower house.

Kan’s successor will become Japan’s sixth prime minister in five years, perpetuating the high turnover in political leadership even as the country grapples with a sluggish economy, an aging population and the enormous reconstruction effort after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that also spawned a nuclear crisis.

The Japanese public, yearning for political unity and resolve in the wake of the disasters, has grown disgusted with the squabbles and blame-trading that has dominated parliamentary sessions.

“It’s embarrassing. It’s hard to keep track of who’s prime minister these days,” said Rie Aoki, a housewife in the Tokyo suburb of Fuchu.

“It’s so upsetting to see them squabbling in parliament. Elementary students have more interesting conversations. I really want them to work together to think about what Tohoku needs,” she said, referring to the northeastern region devastated by the tsunami.

But so far, candidates running for party chief have spelled out little about their vision for post-tsunami reconstruction or other serious issues, such as tackling the bulging national debt. Most of them also have not taken a clear stance on the future of atomic power despite growing public worries about meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

In the murky world of faction-dominated Japanese politics, they seem more concerned about getting votes from fellow party members and shoring up their base of support, experts say.

“There’s precious little on policy talk,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

“One would expect them to” outline their platform on reconstruction and other issues, “but they’re not, which is a strange and really disappointing,” he said. “They are rather more concerned with political bickering inside the political quarters in Nagata-cho.”

The extremely short campaign period — just the weekend before Monday’s vote — also discourages substantive policy discussion, experts say.

The party leadership race could end up as a duel between the relatively young and telegenic Maehara, the former foreign minister, and Kaieda, the economy minister, who reportedly has the backing of party stalwart Ozawa.

A China hawk, Maehara, 49, gained prominence by taking a firm stand toward Beijing during a territorial spat last year over some disputed islands in the East China Sea. He is strongly pro-Washington and supports a close security alliance with the U.S.

“This is not just a party leadership election. We must deliver our message to the people,” Maehara said Friday night.

Kaieda, a 62-year-old former TV commentator on economic matters, has long been a free-trade and tax-reform advocate. He has not pushed for a move away from nuclear power and has taken a cautious view on ensuring safety. But he has shown he can be tough, firing three officials in charge of nuclear safety, a move that could help appease the outrage among voters about regulators’ cozy ties with the industry.

“I believe there is a role that only I can serve at a time when Japan faces a surging yen and prolonged economic slump,” he said. “It’s time for Japan to demonstrate its steady economic recovery.”

Earlier this year, Kaieda burst into tears after being grilled in parliament by an opposition legislator who demanded he step down to take responsibility for the nuclear crisis. “Please endure this,” Kaieda replied, choking up. After he got back to his chair, he wept openly.

Other candidates in the party leadership race include Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who has spent recent weeks contending with the yen’s record appreciation that is hurting Japan’s exporters, former Transport Minister Sumio Mabuchi and Farm Minister Michihiko Kano.

After Monday’s party vote, the new Cabinet could be installed as early as Tuesday.


Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report.

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