Fukuda runaway leader in premiership race
Tokyo, September 17, 2007
Yasuo Fukuda emerged as runaway leader to become Japan's next prime minister on Monday after a survey of ruling party lawmakers who must choose between the soft-spoken veteran and his hawkish rival Taro Aso next weekend.
Two opinion polls also showed that a majority of voters preferred Fukuda to Aso, making him a safer bet to lead the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as it faces pressure from an increasingly confident opposition to call early elections.
The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper said that 55 percent of LDP lawmakers would back the 71-year-old Fukuda and just 12 percent would support former foreign minister Taro Aso in a Sept. 23 vote for the presidency of the party.
Whoever is elected president of the LDP is assured of the premiership as the ruling coalition commands a firm majority in parliament's lower house, which picks the prime minister.
The race was triggered by the abrupt resignation last week of Shinzo Abe after a hapless year as prime minister.
Yasuo Fukuda, an advocate of closer ties with other Asian countries, took his campaign to the regions on Monday, vowing to resolve the emotive issue of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea decades ago.
"If the abductees come back, and North Korea gives up its nuclear and missile programmes, we can restore diplomatic relations," Fukuda told a crowd in the western city of Osaka.
"We can bring a new stage of growth in the region with China, South Korea and Russia."
Establishing the fate of Japanese who were hauled away in the 1970s and 1980s to help train North Korean spies in language and culture is an emotive matter that was central to Abe's agenda.
Fukuda's comments may have been an attempt to assuage concern that the issue would take a backseat to his plans for a softer approach in talks on ending North Korea's nuclear arms programme.
A poll of voters by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper showed 53 percent supported Fukuda while 21 percent backed Aso as respondents said they favoured a leader with a conformist style. The Yomiuri newspaper's public opinion poll also showed a majority wanted Fukuda as the next prime minister.
Yomiuri said that Fukuda, the son of a former prime minister, was likely to draw a hefty chunk of the 141 votes allocated to the LDP's prefectural chapters in addition to the lion's share of lawmaker votes.
Both he and Aso have stressed the need to carry on economic reforms, while paying more attention to weaker regional areas. Both have also raised the possibility of raising the 5 percent consumption tax, a politically thorny issue because the last increase in 1997 was blamed for slowing the economy. - Reuters