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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 September 2007, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
Busy in-tray awaits Japanese leader
By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

Yasuo Fukuda after winning the party election in Tokyo on Sunday 23 September 2007
Mr Fukuda says he has no charisma but is seen as a safe pair of hands
Japan's governing party has chosen the son of a former prime minister as its new leader.

Yasuo Fukuda, who is 71, becomes the president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and is certain to be elected prime minister when parliament meets on Tuesday.

He is the oldest Japanese prime minister to take office since 1991. He replaces Japan's youngest leader in recent history, Shinzo Abe, who was 53 when he stepped down.

Mr Abe's short-lived administration was dogged by mistakes and scandals which many said were largely the result of his inexperience.

Mr Fukuda, in contrast, is seen by some as a safe pair of hands.

Yasuo Fukuda is old but not that experienced
Professor Koichi Nakano
Sophia University, Tokyo

He is a former oilman who himself admits he lacks charisma.

"He is often described as boring," says political analyst Tsuneo Watanabe, from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"But the other way of looking at that is that he represents stability."

On the other hand, as Professor Koichi Nakano from Tokyo's Sophia University points out, he has only held one cabinet post previously.

He was the longest-serving chief cabinet secretary since the end of World War II.

But that is not the same as running a big department like the finance ministry or the ministry of foreign affairs.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, (R), whispers to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in July 2002
Yasuo Fukuda (R) in 2002 and his then boss, ex-PM Junichiro Koizumi

"He is old but not that experienced," the professor says.

Analysts will be watching the selection of his first cabinet closely, to try to work out whether he will be allowed to lead his party or whether the powerful interest groups, the factions with the LDP, will pull the strings and control him.

That is the way it used to work.

The faction bosses would often formulate policy in the shadows, making backroom deals with each other.

One of Mr Fukuda's predecessors, Junichiro Koizumi, tried to sweep that all away and impose his will on his cabinet.

Mr Abe did his best to follow that lead.

If ministerial jobs are divided up equally among the eight main factions who have backed Mr Fukuda, that will look like they are again planning to try to control government policy.

If Mr Fukuda is given more freedom to appoint who he wants for each job that will signal that he is firmly in control of the agenda.

Disgruntled supporters

So what will that agenda be?

He has already made clear that he wants to try to improve relations with North Korea.

He is seen as more of a "dove" on foreign policy than the "hawkish" Mr Abe.

He will be keen to try to improve relations with Japan's neighbours China and South Korea.

He will push for an extension of Japan's naval mission in support of US-led forces in Afghanistan.

That will not be easy.

The opposition which controls the country's Upper House of Parliament has promised to block the legislation necessary to extend the mission.

At home he needs to try to reconnect the LDP with its traditional supporters, particularly those in rural areas who punished the government in the Upper House elections in July.

Yasuo Fukuda after winning the party election in Tokyo on Sunday 23 September 2007
Mr Fukuda may feel the need to gamble on an early election

Many in the countryside complain they have suffered as a result of the country's economic reforms.

Mr Fukuda will have to decide whether to increase public spending in those areas, difficult when the country's huge public debt is the equivalent of one and a half times Japan's GDP.

He will also face calls for a general election, to give him a mandate to govern.

That is a gamble. The LDP currently has a huge majority in the country's Lower House of Parliament.

There does not need to be an election until 2009.

But now the opposition controls the Upper House they will be able to block, or at the very least slow down or frustrate the government's legislative agenda.

Mr Fukuda may feel he has no alternative but to seek the backing of the people for his policy agenda at the earliest opportunity.

However, during the recent Upper House elections the leader of the opposition, Ichiro Ozawa, proved adept at winning over disgruntled former LDP supporters in rural areas.

So an early election would mean there is a chance, admittedly pretty slim, that the people of Japan might decide that after more than 50 years of Liberal Democratic Party rule, almost without a break, it is time for the opposition to take its turn.




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