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Japan ruling party holds run-off vote for next PM

29 august 2011, 14:46
Japan's trade and finance ministers faced off Monday in a second-round ballot to become the head of the ruling party and therefore the country's sixth new prime minister in five years, AFP reports.

The run-off comes after all five candidates of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) failed to win a clear majority in the first round of voting to determine their third leader since they took power two years ago.

Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda, backed by a scandal-tainted faction boss, gained the most votes -- 143 out of 395, while Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda won the support of 102 lawmakers.

However, Noda's prospects rose because many backers of third-placed former foreign minister Seiji Maehara, who won 74 votes, and of farm minister Michihiko Kano, who gained 52 votes, were expected to now support him.

The close contest, a bitter fight within the DPJ, comes amid public disenchantment over the government's response to the March 11 quake-tsunami disaster and the Fukushima nuclear accident.

The outgoing premier, Naoto Kan, on Friday confirmed his resignation after 15 turbulent months in office, after his approval rating had plummeted from a high of 65 percent to just 15 percent.

The five candidates, all men, spent the weekend jockeying for support in the race. The new party chief is to be confirmed as the new prime minister by parliament on Tuesday.

The two men left in the race are members of the Kan cabinet.

Noda, as finance minister, has led mixed efforts to revitalise an economy plagued by decades of deflation and struggled to bring down huge public debt and a strong yen that is hurting exporters and a fragile post-quake rebound.

Noda, making his final pitch Monday, pointed at debt and economic woes in the United States and Europe and said: "In this global current, the question is who will be able to navigate this ship called Japan without losing its course, and say what Japan should say in the arena of international negotiations."

Of stocky build, the 54-year-old admitted that he may lack the telegenic looks of other politicians, but promised steady leadership.

"I am a loach. I can’t be a goldfish," he said, contrasting a whiskered fish to the shiny ornamental variety.

Kaieda, 62, has been a key figure handling the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the world's worst since Chernobyl 25 years ago, which forced the evacuation of 80,000 people and ultimately cost Kan his job.

He was the outside choice until he won the support last week of scandal-tainted but powerful faction boss Ichiro Ozawa.

The DPJ is split between supporters and enemies of Ichiro Ozawa, dubbed Japan's "Shadow Shogun", who commands the loyalty of about 130 lawmakers, many of whom he coached in electioneering and helped get elected.

Ozawa, a defector from the conservative Liberal Democrats, is considered a kingmaker even though he lost a contest against Kan last year and was stripped of his party membership after being indicted over a funding scandal.

Kaieda, who has been at odds with Kan's anti-nuclear stance, has proposed that Japan restart stalled nuclear plants once they are confirmed safe.

Under the strain of handling the Fukushima emergency, Kaieda, formerly a popular media pundit on economic issues, recently broke down in tears after a barrage of hostile questioning by opposition lawmakers.

Kaieda has suggested he would reinstate Ozawa's DPJ membership if elected.

On Monday he told the party conference: "The disaster was a crisis that occurred in the middle of a long-term slump. But we can turn the crisis into an opportunity. I would like to build a united party, that feels heart-to-heart together and trusts each other."

By Shingo Ito

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