- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

TOKYO (AP) — Weakened by scandal and failure at the ballot box, Japan’s prime minister announced yesterday that he was quitting after only a year in office, bowing out amid a political brawl over the country’s aid to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.

Shinzo Abe surprised members of his party and even his own Cabinet by deciding to resign only days after he pledged to stake his government on the success of legislation to extend Japan’s naval mission in the Indian Ocean.

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party scrambled today to find a new leader and avoid a policy vacuum after the shock resignation, amid reports the departing leader had medical problems.

Senior Japanese officials cited health reasons and Jiji news agency said Mr. Abe would be hospitalized soon.

The nationalist Mr. Abe, whose government was severely damaged by a string of scandals and his party’s loss of control of the upper house of parliament in July elections, said someone more politically viable should shepherd the Afghan measure that the opposition is trying to scuttle.

“I decided a quick decision was necessary, and that a further delay would cause political confusion,” he said during a nationally televised press conference. “I find myself unable to keep my promises — I myself have become an obstacle to fulfilling those promises.”

Mr. Abe, at 52 the country’s youngest postwar prime minister, listed the election defeat and an opposition leader’s refusal to meet with him earlier in the day as signs that he could no longer lead.

Mr. Abe’s unpopular government had become a liability for the ruling LDP, which is facing increasing calls from the resurgent opposition to hold early elections for the powerful lower house of parliament.

Four of Mr. Abe’s Cabinet ministers have resigned in scandals, including one who quit this month just a week after being appointed. An agriculture minister committed suicide over a money scandal in May.

A tabloid also has been threatening to publish an article claiming Mr. Abe dodged inheritance taxes, Kyodo News agency reported late Tuesday.

Mr. Abe, whose support ratings in opinion polls had sagged to about 30 percent, did not announce a date for his departure.

The LDP said it would use a streamlined election process to choose his successor as party president, reportedly next Wednesday.

Some party lawmakers urged the return of Mr. Abe’s charismatic predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. Kyodo said at least 31 party lawmakers signed a petition calling for Mr. Koizumi’s return.

But lawmaker Gaku Ishizaki told TV Asahi that the former prime minister has so far rejected the idea of returning to power.

Mr. Abe’s former foreign minister, Taro Aso, was widely viewed as the front-runner.

The leadership change comes just as the government has opened its battle in parliament over the Indian Ocean naval mission, which the opposition has vowed to defeat.

Japan’s navy has been providing fuel for coalition warships in the Indian Ocean since November 2001 under an anti-terrorism law that has already been extended three times. The legislation is a key issue before the special parliament session that opened Monday.

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