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Prime Minister Abe's announcement on September 12 that he intended to resign came as a complete surprise to the Japanese public. His subsequent hospitalization due to stress and stomach disorders has come as a sad curtain call on what had started as a strong premiership. Tokyo has meanwhile done its best to reassure Beijing and Washington that things will go on as before, business as usual, but it is difficult to see how this can be promised considering the potential candidates to the office.
At present the Liberal Democratic Party is scrambling to begin the party leadership contest, which will also determine the premiership. Candidates include former foreign minister, Taro Aso, former finance minister Sakakazu Tanigaki, former chief cabinet secretary, Yasuo Fukuda, and current Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga. The strongest candidate at present is Taro Aso, who came in 2nd in the leadership contest held after Koizumi's resignation.
Taro Aso is well-known for his hard-line views regarding North Korea, as well as his tougher stance toward China, so it is difficult to see how Abe's current China-friendly stance could be continued. For example, in December 2006, Aso stated that any country with a billion people, nuclear weapons, and rising military expenditure should be considered a threat. Beijing was not happy. How would Aso treat the US? It's difficult to say, but if he did drift away from China, it is likely that he would be seek closer ties to the US. Curiously, as a young man he was pulled out of Stanford University, because his family thought that he was becoming 'too Americanized'.
And what of the opposition? After all, the unexpected nature of this departure is a blow for the LDP's credibility. The usual questioning about his motives, running along the lines of did he jump, was he pushed seemed to point in the latter direction. Quite simply, it appears that Abe jumped.
Ichiro Ozawa is yet to have capitalized on this situation. Perhaps he is unable to make too much of a stink since Abe has been hospitalized. However, he is likely to call for an election as soon as the LDP has put forward a new leader, and should that occur, his party is in a good position to win it. The Democratic Party of Japan has watched with amazement as the LDP has dropped further and further in the polls this year, losing ministers with quick rapidity. To paraphrase Lady Bracknell, to lose one would have been considered a misfortune, but to lose two looks like carelessness.
And where would the DPJ take Japanese Foreign Policy? Ozawa has already indicated his desire to withdraw Japanese forces from the MIO mission in the Indian Ocean; this would certainly create tension between Washington and Tokyo for a while. It is difficult to say whether Ozawa's foreign policy would be friendlier to China or cooler.
Whatever the case, the Japanese political scene promises to be bring more surprises and unexpected turns in the coming weeks.
The views above are those of the author alone and do not represent the views or official stance of the Institute.
John Hemmings, Research Associate, Asia Programme