Tokyo: Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announced his sudden resignation Monday, saying the country needed a fresh start after a troubled year in office marred by bitter fighting with the opposition.
The surprise announcement came after the 72-year-old political moderate failed to turn around dwindling public support for his government despite reshuffling his cabinet and unveiling a major economic stimulus package.
Fukuda, under fire over a deeply unpopular medical care plan for the elderly, admitted he felt “swamped” dealing with the problems of the world’s second largest economy.
“Today, I have decided to resign. We need a new line-up to cope with a new session of parliament,” Fukuda told a hastily arranged news conference.
“I have determined that now is the most opportune time, in which we will not create a political void. I thought it would be quite different if somebody new would take care of this,” he said.
Fukuda said his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would hold an internal election to determine his successor. He did not call a general election, which does not need to be held for another year.
The likely front-runner to take over the post is Taro Aso, a former foreign minister who is known for being both more charismatic and more conservative than Fukuda.
Aso indicated early Tuesday he would be willing to run, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported. “I would not rule out (the possibility) that I would be fit” for the post, the agency quoted him as saying.
US President George W. Bush said he looked forward to working with Fukuda’s successor, and praised the prime minister’s work.
Fukuda, who in July presided over the annual summit of the Group of Eight major industrial powers, is known for his moderate policies including his efforts to repair historically uneasy relations with China.
But he has openly admitted that he lacks charisma, and polls show voters faulting him for not showing stronger initiative.
Fukuda said he made the decision in light of the tense situation in parliament. The opposition Democratic Party won control of one house last year and has aggressively fought Fukuda’s agenda.
“The Democratic Party has tried to stall every bill so it has taken a long time to implement any policies. For the sake of the Japanese people, this should not be repeated,” Fukuda said.
Fukuda’s LDP has been in power for all but 10 months since its creation in 1955. It enjoys a powerful majority in a legacy of a 2005 landslide victory under reformist leader Junichiro Koizumi.
The opposition lashed out at Fukuda, saying that he should call a general election.
“All we want is the calling of early elections,” said Yukio Hatoyama, secretary general of the main opposition Democratic Party.
“I am deeply resentful towards Fukuda for not caring about people,” Hatoyama told reporters. “His sudden abandonment showed that the LDP does not have the ability to hold the reins of government.”
Fukuda was bracing for another showdown with the opposition in parliament. The next session is set to open on 12 September, although media reports said it would likely be delayed.
The opposition last year forced a brief halt to Japan’s mission in the Indian Ocean supporting the US-led “war on terror” in Afghanistan.
Another fight is expected during this session over whether to extend the mission for another year.
Fukuda took office nearly a year ago in hopes of reviving the LDP, but he faced an uproar for introducing a hugely unpopular medical coverage plan that raises costs for many elderly people.
On Friday, he unveiled a 11.7-trillion-yen ($107-billion) stimulus package, although some experts doubted it would give a long-term boost to the economy.
A poll out earlier Monday said that his government’s approval rating had slumped nine points in the past month to 29%, erasing most of the bounce he received from reshuffling his cabinet a month ago.
The poll tipped Aso as the most popular candidate to replace Fukuda.
But analysts said that any prime minister would face a challenge in a divided parliament, an anomaly in Japanese politics.
“I doubt things would get any easier if someone else from the LDP succeeds him as prime minister,” said Sadafumi Kawato, professor of politics at Tohoku University.
“In the broader sense, this is a sign of the LDP’s declining power,” he said.