TOKYO - 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.
Japanese Chief Cabinet
Secretary Shinzo Abe, the front runner to become Japan's next prime
minister, delivers a speech at Tokyo's Akihabara district in this
September 9, 2006 file photo. Shinzo Abe, a staunch advocate of a bigger
say for Japan in global affairs, was poised to win a ruling party
leadership contest on September 20, 2006, setting the stage for his
election as prime minister next week.
Abe, set to become Japan's first prime minister born after World War Two, 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.
ASIAN DIALOGUE OR FRICTION?
"I like Abe's basic stance on policy. He has good relations with the United
States and I like his strong attitude toward 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
"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
"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 criticized Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni and clashed with Abe by
urging that Japan's 5 percent sales tax be raised to 10 percent 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 honored with war
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