Japan's prime minister resigns
His exit leaves weakened party
TOKYO - Japan's chronically unpopular prime minister abruptly resigned yesterday after a yearlong struggle with a deadlocked parliament, leaving the weakened ruling party to grapple with a stalled economy and rising calls for snap elections.
The resignation of Yasuo Fukuda, 72, deepened a two-year stretch of political instability at the helm of the world's second-largest economy. It came only days after the government announced a stimulus package to counter flagging consumer spending.
Fukuda, who took office just under a year ago, said he was clearing the decks for a more popular successor to take over ahead of a tough special session in the parliament, where the ruling party controls the lower house and the opposition dominates the upper.
"We still have time before discussion of key policies starts in the upcoming parliamentary session, and this is the perfect timing not to cause people too much trouble," Fukuda said, explaining that he was exiting to avoid a "political vacuum."
Fukuda suffered throughout his term from anemic public backing - the latest poll showed him with only 29 percent support - and repeated embarrassment at the hands of the obstructionist opposition in parliament.
The resignation announcement came a month after Fukuda installed his most widely expected successor, former foreign minister Taro Aso, as secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, in a Cabinet shake-up aimed at boosting support for the government. Aso, who lost against Fukuda in the race for premier last year, has not said whether he would run again.
The resignation, which will probably not take effect for a couple of weeks, surprised Japan and was solidly condemned by the opposition as a sign of deep instability within the LDP, which has ruled the country almost without interruption since 1955.
"It's just incredible that the LDP is getting rid of Fukuda, and he is actually quitting . . . without thinking of the people at all," said opposition Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima.
The opposition, which took control of the upper house in elections last year, has pushed for snap elections for the more powerful lower house, but the LDP - aware that it would probably lose seats - has so far resisted. Fukuda's sudden resignation, however, could be a sign the LDP is rushing to put a fresh leader in place before calling a snap ballot.
The resignation prolonged the political uncertainty that has plagued Japan since the popular Junichiro Koizumi left the premiership in 2006 after five years in office.
Koizumi's hand-picked successor, Shinzo Abe, lasted only a year in office, resigning in September 2007 for health reasons.