Japan's Abe wins party leadership, set to be PM

Shinzo Abe, a conservative advocate of a more muscular Japanese foreign policy, was overwhelmingly elected as ruling party leader on Wednesday, setting the stage for his election as prime minister next week.

Abe, set to become Japan’s first prime minister born after World War II, has pledged to rewrite Japan’s pacifist Constitution, forge even tighter security ties with close ally Washington, and put patriotism back in Japanese classrooms.

He has also promised to seek a thaw in ties with China and South Korea, chilled by outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to a Tokyo war shrine. But he has stressed that better relations require efforts on all sides.

Abe’s widely anticipated victory all but ensures his election as prime minister when Parliament convenes for a vote on September 26 because of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s grip on the lower chamber.

Abe took 464 of the 702 valid votes from LDP lawmakers and party chapters, against 136 for Foreign Minister Taro Aso and 102 for Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, his rivals.

Lawmakers applauded when Koizumi, wearing a blue suit and red tie, cast his ballot in the contest that brings down the curtain on his more than five years as LDP leader, during which he battled his party’s old guard to push reforms.

Abe, who turns 52 on Thursday, has promised to pursue growth while pushing economic reforms begun by Koizumi, who took power in 2001 vowing to cut his party loose from the grip of vested interests and reduce government’s heavy hand on the economy.

“I want to take responsibility to further reform the LDP,” a relaxed-looking Abe told a news conference before the vote.

The soft-spoken Abe has long topped the list of politicians Japanese voters prefer to see succeed Koizumi, making him the candidate of choice for a hefty majority of LDP lawmakers looking ahead to elections for Parliament’s upper house next summer.

First elected to Parliament in 1993, Abe has held only one Cabinet post, his current key job as chief Cabinet secretary.

He first became a household name four years ago for his tough stance in a feud with North Korea over Japanese citizens kidnapped by the secretive communist state decades ago.

Now Abe faces the dual challenges of repairing ties with Beijing and Seoul and keeping economic reforms on track while addressing voter worries about the widening social gaps many see resulting from Koizumi’s reforms.

“I like Abe’s basic stance on policy. He has good relations with the United States and I like his strong attitude towards North Korea,” said Tomoya Minakawa, a 39-year-old IT engineer.

“I also support his thinking on education policy.

“I want the next prime minister to improve relations with China and South Korea,” Minakawa added.
“I’m not sure if Abe can do that, but I support him.”

Abe, a third-generation politician, is thought unlikely to adopt Koizumi’s combative approach in forging ahead with economic reforms and so far had not fleshed out details of how he intends to get a handle on Japan’s bulging public debt.

“Abe was set to win from the start, so there’s been no debate on the candidates’ policies,” said Hiroshi Sase (36) who works for an employment agency.

“Frankly, I don’t know much about his policies. I just know that he’s popular, not whether his policies are good or not.”

With Abe’s win seen wrapped up, attention is already turning to the question of who will be awarded plum Cabinet posts.

Aso is expected to get either a top party post or a Cabinet portfolio after campaigning on a platform that echoed Abe’s own.

Tanigaki, who criticised Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni and clashed with Abe by urging that Japan’s 5% sales tax be raised to 10% by 2015, has already said he will not remain in the Cabinet if he loses the LDP race.

Abe has defended Koizumi’s pilgrimages to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are honoured with war dead.

Abe has sidestepped the issue of Japanese leaders’ responsibility for the war and visited Yasukuni in the past.

He has declined to say whether he pay his respects there as prime minister, an ambiguity some see as leaving the door open to better ties with Beijing and Seoul. The stance has prompted criticism from some who say he is dodging the issue. - Reuters

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