Clock Starts Running for Japan's Aso

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Jiji Press / AFP / Getty

Newly elected party president Taro Aso, fourth from left, and other party members cheer at the end of the LDP's election in Tokyo on Sept. 22

Liberal Democratic Party leader Taro Aso became Japan's 59th prime minister after sweeping a Sept. 24 vote in Parliament. His chief order of business will be to restore public confidence in the LDP as the party that can lead the nation out of recession and restore economic growth. But his first job will be to stay in office long enough to make a difference.

His two predecessors, Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda, resigned after about a year amid abysmal public approval ratings. "The public is ready to give up on politics," says Mr. Kawasaki, a sushi chef in Tokyo. "We want someone who will stick it out for more than a year and get something done." Smelling blood, the opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, is ready wants to take advantage of LDP weakness by gaining control of Parliament and forcing the ouster of yet another new prime minister.

They might soon have their chance. Aso is expected to dissolve the Parliament's Lower House and call for a general election by the end of October, a move that would allow the LDP to capitalize on Aso's popularity and the honeymoon period that new prime ministers often enjoy. But it would also open the door for DPJ members to gain seats in Parliament. The DPJ has made a career out of being the naysayer opposition party to the LDP, and has recently had some success in eroding public support for its political rival, capitalizing on issues like a problem with pensions in which millions of dollars in public money disappeared, and a tainted rice scandal involving the Ministry of Agriculture. The DPJ won the Upper House elections last year, the first time an opposition party has won that house's majority since the LDP's establishment in 1955, and now hopes to take the reins of power in both houses of the Diet.

The DPJ's growing strength and the LDP's past failures have some believing that Aso's party could lose a general election outright. "If my guess is right, then Aso will be the prime minister with the shortest time in office," says Axel Klein. He says that in the race against the "uncharismatic" Fukuda last year, Aso showed himself to have a "very difficult character." Says Takao Toshikawa, political analyst and editor of political newsletter Tokyo Insideline: "This controversial general election will be an actual competition."

Aso's chief rival is Ichiro Ozawa, the 66-year-old populist leader of the DPJ, who has vowed to become prime minister and called the upcoming elections Japan's "last chance" to change. Ozawa has set out nine major policy initiatives aimed at perceived LDP weaknesses. Among them is a plan to unify the pension and healthcare systems, which could win points with Japan's aging population and embarrass LDP leaders, who have at times appeared insensitive to the pocketbook issues of ordinary citizens. Ozama also wants to narrow Japan's growing income gap by raising low-income wages and give bigger childcare allowances to families.

Despite the LDP's precarious position, Aso does have some things going for him. A famously avid fan of manga comics and the first to set up an award for non-Japanese cartoonists, the ex-foreign minister has gained the support of young voters. His characteristic off-the-cuff remarks win him the image of a gruff political straight shooter — he admits, for instance, that he is "prone to pork-barrel spending," but says that to reinvigorate Japan's economy he plans to spend more to stimulate domestic demand. "The economic situation is getting tough," said Aso on Sept. 22, the day he was elected to lead his party. "The biggest mission given to me is to resolve this, and I plan to do my utmost." If he succeeds, Japan has a shot at some stable leadership that could reinvigorate a tired electorate. If he fails, Aso might set a record for the shortest term in office by a postwar Japanese prime minister.

(See photos from Tokyo here.)