- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2008

TOKYO | In the quirky world of Japanese politics, the U.S. is inevitably part of the backdrop and Monday’s intraparty election to choose the third prime minister in two years is no exception.

“The Japan-U.S. relationship stands at a crossroads in terms of both political and economic ties,” said Akikazu Hashimoto, a political scientist at J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo.

“But no candidate has talked about how the relationship should be,” Mr. Hashimoto said.

No matter who wins the LDP race on Monday, the next leader must also face an empowered Democratic Party of Japan (DJP), the main opposition party, which controls the upper house.

The LDP, or Liberal Democratic Party, has ruled Japan since the end of the U.S. postwar occupation with the exception of a 10-month period in the 1990s.

Outspoken former Foreign Minister Taro Aso is widely expected to win the top LDP post in party elections this week and become the nation’s third prime minister in the past two years.

The outgoing Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who announced earlier this month that he would step down, has struggled with political gridlock and economic downturns since he took office a year ago.

The LDP was badly defeated by the DJP in the upper house election in July 2007 when the LDP’s Shinzo Abe, Mr. Fukuda’s predecessor, held the prime minister post.

Mr. Abe also abruptly stepped down for health reasons a year ago, and his Cabinet did not last for a year, either.

“The DJP victory complicated everything,” said Ellis Krauss, a professor of Japanese politics and policymaking at the University of California at San Diego.

“What is strange though is that the public seemed to blame the government for the stalemate rather than the DJP’s stubborn opposition to everything,” the professor said.

Mr. Fukuda’s Cabinet had also trouble recovering low approval ratings because of his weak leadership and lack of charisma, which he conceded.

Many lawmakers in the ruling coalition feared that they would not be able to win the next House of Representatives election in the lower house if Mr. Fukuda remained at the helm, according to analysts - something that happened only once in postwar Japanese history.

“Fukuda resigned because he lost support of the Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organization,” a main support body of New Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, said Yasushi Kawasaki, a former political reporter at NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, and now an executive board member at Sugiyama Women’s University in Nagoya.

“The LDP cannot survive without their support” because the party has to rely on their vote-gathering power.

The next prime minister will be under mounting pressure to call a snap election by the end of this year since the ruling LDP wants to take advantage of the honeymoon period of the new leader.

Even in conjunction with New Komeito, the LDP has to fight an uphill battle to retain its majority in the low house. LDP members expect that Mr. Aso’s popularity could help the party contest the election successfully.

Mr. Aso, the current secretary-general of the LDP, known for his sharp tongue and love of manga (Japanese comics), is making his fourth bid for the nation’s top post. His grandfather Shigeru Yoshida and father-in-law, Zenko Suzuki, were prime ministers.

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