- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2008

TOKYO | Brash conservative Taro Aso easily won the presidency of Japan’s struggling ruling party Monday, putting him in line to take over as prime minister this week amid political and economic turmoil.

Mr. Aso, 68, a former foreign minister and grandson of a prominent prime minister, clinched 351 of the 525 votes cast in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) election. His triumph over four rivals had been widely expected over the past three weeks, since Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announced he would quit.

Mr. Aso was all but guaranteed to be elected prime minister in the LDP-dominated parliament on Wednesday - inheriting a fractured political landscape and looming economic fallout from the financial meltdown in the United States.

“We’re now at the starting line to face new difficulties,” said Mr. Aso, pledging to deliver victory in widely expected elections in the lower house of parliament. “Once we win the elections, I can fulfill my mission.”

Mr. Fukuda is quitting after a year of battling with a split parliament. The LDP runs the powerful lower house, but the opposition took control of the upper house in elections last year, and has repeatedly embarrassed his government by blocking or delaying high-profile legislation.

The next prime minister will face mounting pressure to renew the LDP’s mandate by calling snap lower house elections. Speculation is rampant that the balloting could come as soon as next month.

The disarray at the top of the government is raising concerns about how the country will handle its economic troubles. Inflation is up and growth has stalled, effectively ending a lengthy period of expansion.

“Concerns about the political vacuum are growing as the LDP eyes a leadership battle with the opposition party,” the Nikkei business newspaper said in a commentary Monday. “The public is closely watching if Aso can promptly demonstrate his leadership.”

As prime minister, Mr. Aso would bring a colorful personality to a post that has been lackluster in the two years since Junichiro Koizumi - a silver-maned prime minister who publicly imitated Elvis Presley during a trip to the icon’s Graceland home - left office.

Mr. Koizumi’s nationalist successor, Shinzo Abe, quit after only a year amid scandals and his own health troubles. The dour Mr. Fukuda, considered at first an experienced hand, has failed to energize the party or draw voter interest.

Mr. Aso, however, is likely to make headlines from Day One.

He has riled Beijing by calling China a military threat, angered Asians by claiming that Taiwan’s educational success is rooted in Japanese wartime colonial policies, and compared Japan’s opposition party to the Nazis.

In comments leading up to Monday’s vote, Mr. Aso has tried to craft a subtler, more mature image.

“The greatest concern right now is the economy,” he told a crowd of supporters outside Tokyo in a drizzling rain on Sunday. “America is facing a financial crisis … we must not allow that to bring us down as well.”


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