TOKYO (AFP) — Outspoken conservative Taro Aso signalled his desire Tuesday to be Japan's next prime minister after the abrupt resignation of Yasuo Fukuda deepened political turmoil in the world's second largest economy.
Fukuda made his shock announcement on Monday after less than one year in office, saying he was overwhelmed with the mounting problems besetting Japan, which is teetering on the brink of recession.
The new political uncertainty led to a late sell-off on the Stock Exchange, whose benchmark index slumped 1.75 percent to its lowest level in five months.
Fukuda remains in office until his governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) meets to elect his replacement as leader. That is expected to be on September 22, after which parliament would formally endorse the new premier.
Aso, a flamboyant former foreign minister known for his love of comic-book culture, made little secret of the fact that he wants to be premier.
"Mr Fukuda said last night that he wanted a successor to take over what he has done," Aso, currently the LDP's secretary general, told reporters.
"I believe that I am qualified to take over Mr Fukuda's agenda, including the emergency economic package," Aso said, referring to an 11.7-trillion-yen (107-billion-dollar) stimulus plan unveiled Friday.
Aso, 67, is a former rival of Fukuda and is known for his hawkish views on foreign policy.
He is considered more conservative than the 72-year-old outgoing premier, who helped repair historically uneasy relations with China.
China's foreign ministry said Fukuda "has made great contributions" to building relations, adding: "We think highly of him."
US President George W. Bush also said he "fondly recalled" working with Fukuda.
But Fukuda's popularity at home plummeted as his government introduced a deeply unpopular medical plan, suffered a series of scandals and tussled with an opposition set on blocking its legislative agenda.
The resignation revived memories of Shinzo Abe, another LDP prime minister who suddenly quit in September last year. Abe was widely criticised as being irresponsible, including by Fukuda himself.
Fukuda apologised at the start of an LDP meeting on Tuesday, Aso said.
"Prime Minister Fukuda said at the start of the executive meeting that he was very sorry for disturbing us with the sudden announcement," Aso said.
People in the streets snapped up late-night extra newspaper editions after the announcement, some voicing shock or worries for the economy.
"I had been expecting something to change on the economic front," Hideyuki Kato, a 47-year-old salesman in central Tokyo, told AFP. "But I don't have any expectations from politics now."
The opposition Democratic Party won control of one house of parliament last year and has used it to block much of Fukuda's agenda in hopes of forcing new elections, which must be held by September 2009.
Fukuda's LDP has been in power for all but 10 months since its creation in 1955.
"Our efforts have brought about the collapse of the Fukuda government," chief opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa said.
"If you use political common sense, I'd say that the opposition should take over power. But they're not going to give up so easily," Ozawa said.
Aso is so far the only person to openly voice an intention to contest the LDP leadership contest.
However, Fukuda wants several people to run rather than having a candidate go unchallenged, said Takashi Sasagawa, chairman of the LDP's general affairs committee.
Another candidate could be Yuriko Koike, 56, one of Japan's most high-profile female politicians, who has been defence minister.
"This is not just a crisis for the LDP but a crisis for Japan. I want to share this sense of crisis with other people," said Koike, a former television anchorwoman fluent in English and Arabic, in what was seen as an indication that she may run if other lawmakers support her.
The turmoil will likely force the postponement of a first three-way summit between Japan, China and South Korea later this year, Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said.
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