Fukuda favored to win party race, be Japan's prime minister
Newspaper polls indicate he has a comfortable lead
TOKYO - Ruling party elder and political moderate Yasuo Fukuda is expected to win today's contest for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party, a victory virtually certain to make him the next prime minister of Japan in a parliamentary vote Tuesday.
The two candidates battling to be prime minister wound down their campaigns yesterday, stumping for rural votes outside Tokyo and then moving to the capital for final appeals for support.
Fukuda, 71, who would become the first son of a prime minister to take the job, brushed off questions yesterday about his Cabinet lineup on his way to a debate with his opponent, former foreign minister Taro Aso.
"I have not made any personnel decision yet; it's still blank," he said in the city of Sendai, northeast of Tokyo.
Aso, 67, a foreign policy hawk close to outgoing nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, accused Fukuda of not revealing enough of his agenda, which has focused on helping rural areas, improving ties with Asia, and backing the US-led war on terrorism.
"Today is the last day. I hope he will provide more details of his policies so that we can have a real debate," Aso said in Sendai.
Fukuda has the support of the major factions of the Liberal Democratic Party, and newspaper polls indicate he has a comfortable lead over Aso. A poll in the Asahi newspaper yesterday suggested that he would get 67 percent of the vote from national Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers, with substantial support from local party chapters.
Abe, 53, announced earlier this month that he would resign after a year in office, and he checked into a hospital, where he remained this weekend. His term has been marked by damaging scandals, including the suicide of a Cabinet member, and he led the Liberal Democratic Party to an election disaster in July in which the party lost control of the upper house of Parliament.
The winner in the party ballot is assured selection as prime minister when parliament convenes Tuesday because the party controls the powerful lower house.
The Liberal Democratic Party is scrambling to stabilize the government and win back popularity. The party is also eager to win passage of legislation extending the country's naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of US-led forces in Afghanistan.
The resurgent opposition has vowed to defeat the Afghan measure, though Fukuda has said he would work with the opposition and try to persuade them to support it.
In the campaign, the two candidates have espoused similar positions, with the differences being ones of details and approach.
Aso is the more stridently conservative of the two, pushing a hard line against North Korea for abducting Japanese citizens, an aggressive stance against the opposition, and a tough position with rising China.
Fukuda has played himself as more conciliatory, saying he was open to negotiation with North Korea and a cooperative approach with the opposition and eager to improve ties with China and other Asian nations.
Fukuda is hardly the most charismatic or dynamic politician in Japan. The son of a former prime minister, he prefers gray suits, classical music, and moderate pro-American policies.
Yet for Japan's longstanding ruling party, he is the man of the moment. The Liberal Democratic Party, which has nose-dived in popularity under Abe, is betting the former oil company man can revive the party's fortunes.
Domestically, Fukuda wants to bring aid to rural communities missing out on the country's economic recovery.
Internationally, he aims to improve ties with Japan's Asian neighbors, engage North Korea more deeply, and stick with Tokyo's strongly pro-Washington foreign policy.
"We need to be bearers of peace," Fukuda said during a joint news conference with Aso last week. "Japan should be the biggest contributor in this aspect, and we must win the trust of other countries."
Once in office, Fukuda's top priority would be getting Parliament to approve the extension of the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.
The other big goal is resisting public and opposition pressure to call early lower house elections - and endanger his and the Liberal Democratic Party's grip on power - until he can reestablish the popularity of the ruling party, which has been in power almost uninterruptedly since 1955.
But Fukuda, a proven survivor who became the country's longest-serving chief Cabinet secretary from 2000 to 2004, is considered well suited for the job.
Supporters and analysts say he combines political savvy and maturity with careful attention to down-to-earth issues such as employment, pension reform, and a fairer distribution of income.
"He's going to go to typical LDP bread-and-butter policies," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. "I think what he wants to do is woo the public and show the LDP is paying attention to the issues they care about."