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Japan's ruling party picks a new prime minister this weekend. The Liberal Democratic Party has to name a new leader after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suddenly resigned last week. He checked into a hospital, claiming to suffer from stress. So who might replace Abe?
NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo on Japan's new political uncertainty and the coming transition.
ANTHONY KUHN: In the confusion following Abe's resignation announcement, LDP powerbrokers quickly rallied around 71-year-old Yasuo Fukuda. With his big glasses and bulging briefcase, Fukuda has a reputation as a capable, but not too ambitious backroom operator. Politicians here called him the shadow prime minister.
At a press briefing here today, Fukuda said he was amazed at how fate had suddenly pushed him out of the shadows and into the spotlights.
Mr. YASUO FUKUDA (Candidate for Prime Minister, Japan): (Through translator) Last Wednesday, I could not imagine that I would be speaking here. I thought, why is this happening to me? It's really horrifying how unpredictable politics is. Politics is a world of darkness.
KUHN: Polls show Fukuda with a lopsided lead over his competitor, LDP General Secretary Taro Aso. Aso is a former foreign minister known for his hawkish views on China and North Korea. Aso slammed Fukuda's lead as the result of an old-fashioned deal decided by LDP faction bosses. Aso pledged to continue his candidacy.
Mr. TARO ASO (Candidate for Prime Minister; Secretary-General, Liberal Democratic Party, Japan): Had I not chose to run, there was absolutely no election. People in Japan couldn't have heard any politic debate. This race, ladies and gentlemen, is about an old LDP versus a new LDP.
KUHN: Many Japanese feel that the new LDP is represented by Shinzo Abe failed to deliver. Abe came in with a big bang last year, buoyed by high approval ratings and promising a newly assertive Japan. But he left with a whimper. His cabinet plagued by scandals, and his nationalist priority seen as irrelevant to ordinary Japanese who are anxious about bread and butter issues such as their pensions.
Outside the bustling downtown Shimbashi train station, 29-year-old doctor, Madoka Ariga(ph), says she doesn't care for either Fukuda or Aso. Instead, she backs the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ.
Dr. MADOKA ARIGA (Resident, Japan): (Through translator) My chief concern is the economy. I want to see the economy return to the good times of a decade ago. If the government doesn't have enough income, then they can't solve the pension problem.
KUHN: Rural Japanese are also worried about the disappearance of services in their communities. Local economies traditionally ran on pork barrel politics. The old LDP doled out government projects in exchange for votes. But recent reforms have weakened that system, and jobs, investment and services have dried up.
Still, 60-year-old rural resident Hideyaki Saito(ph) says he supports the LDP and Yasuo Fukuda.
Mr. HIDEYAKI SAITO (Resident, Japan): (Japanese spoken)
KUHN: Fukuda is from Guma Prefecture, he says, and I come from neighboring Tochigi Prefecture. So I have some hopes for him, and I expect he will revive the rural economy instead of just concentrating on Tokyo.
Rural dissatisfaction with the LDP helped the opposition DPJ to trounce them in July elections for the upper house of parliament. The DPJ also put pressure on Shinzo Abe by opposing Japan's role in the Indian Ocean refueling ships supporting coalition operations in Afghanistan. Abe says he resigned over that issue. But then the story changed. There have been rumors of further scandals surrounding Abe.
Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano says the truth about Abe's resignation is still murky.
Dr. KOICHI NAKANO (Political Scientist, Sophia University, Japan): Abe's aides are trying to paint the picture that he resigned for serious illness or some kind, needing hospitalization. I think at this point, the public cannot quite believe in that.
KUHN: With its economic recovery on shaky footing, Japan obviously needs a strong leader. Nakano predicts that the opposition DPJ will force snap elections in the lower house within a year, and that will force the LDP to come up with a more charismatic leader than Yasuo Fukuda.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.
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