Former Foreign Minister Taro Aso won the Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election Monday to succeed unpopular Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, reflecting hope in the LDP that his strong name recognition will bring victory in a House of Representatives election widely expected to be called soon.
Aso, a 68-year-old outspoken hawk who was making his fourth bid for the LDP presidency, took 351 of the 527 votes in a landslide victory, defeating his four rivals following a 12-day campaign which centered on such issues as how to shore up Japan's flagging economy amid global financial turmoil.
Aso will be chosen as Japan's new prime minister in parliament Wednesday, given the LDP's majority in the lower house, which has the final say in choosing the country's leader. A new cabinet is expected to be launched the same day.
As for the four other candidates, former Defense Minister Yuriko Koike, 56, the first-ever female candidate in an LDP leadership race, took 46 votes, former LDP policy chief Nobuteru Ishihara, 51, 37 votes, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, 51, 25 votes and Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Kaoru Yosano, 70, 66 votes.
"We're now at the starting line to face new difficulties," said 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."
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 worries 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, Aso would bring a colorful personality to a post that has suffered in the two years since Junichiro Koizumi -- a silver-maned premier who publicly imitated Elvis Presley during a trip to Graceland -- left office.
Koizumi's nationalist successor, Shinzo Abe, quit after only a year amid scandals and his own health troubles. The dour Fukuda, considered at first an experienced hand, has failed to energize the party or draw voter interest.
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, Aso has tried to craft a subtler, more mature image.
"The greatest concern right now is the economy," Aso 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."
Political analyst Minoru Morita said the fate of Aso's government depends on the results of national elections expected in coming months, in which his party is widely expected to lose large number of seats.
"As the LDP's grip on power is weakening, Aso could end up not being able to achieve anything," Morita said.© Wire reports