Japan PM steps down amid policy deadlock

Japan’s beleaguered Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda, resigned on Monday, less than a year after taking office, in a move that threatens to plunge the world’s second-biggest economy into political turmoil.

Faced with poor poll ratings, policy deadlock and mounting economic problems, a grim-faced Fukuda said he had decided several days ago to step down to avoid creating a ”political vacuum”.

Fukuda’s resignation leaves the door open for Taro Aso, an outspoken rightwinger whom Fukuda made secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP) in last month’s reshuffle.

At a hastily arranged press conference in Tokyo, Fukuda conceded that a recent Cabinet reshuffle and the announcement last week of $107-billion in extra spending and tax cuts had failed to boost support for his administration.

Faced with an upper house controlled by opposition parties, Fukuda has failed to push through key legislation since he took office last September. Opposition parties, led by the Democrats, have blocked government Bills and appointments, including Fukuda’s preferred candidate for Bank of Japan governor.

”The power struggle in Parliament has caused me many headaches,” Fukuda said. ”I’ve tried to talk things through with the opposition, but they have voted against every single important government Bill.”

Speculation that Fukuda would resign mounted after it became clear that his authority had been badly shaken in a row over the timing of the next parliamentary session. He had wanted Parliament to meet last month to vote on the Afghanistan refuelling mission but was opposed by members of his party and the LDP’s junior partner, New Komeito, who feared the debate would further damage the coalition’s standing.

The government has also been rocked by widespread anger over health insurance reforms that have forced many patients aged over 75 to pay more for medical treatment.

Fukuda’s departure promises to bring yet more political instability to Japan.

His predecessor, Shinzo Abe, stepped down a year after taking office because of sagging popularity and poor health.

Fukuda said: ”We can’t allow progress to be stalled further, we must not create a political vacuum. Policy must be allowed to move forward so I have decided to step down as prime minister. The Japanese economy and Japanese people’s livelihoods are at stake.”

Fukuda added that he decided to resign before the next parliamentary session begins on September 12.

Despite opposition calls for a snap election, some observers expect the new leader to attempt to rebuild the party’s popularity before the next general election is due in September 2009. —

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