TOKYO (AFP) — Former TV anchorwoman Yuriko Koike launched a bid Monday to become Japan's first female prime minister, as a buoyant opposition vowed to cut short the next leader's tenure.
Koike, 56, is the first woman ever to seek the premiership in Japan, which has one of the world's lowest rates of female representation in politics.
"I have received the enthusiastic support of my colleagues," Koike told a news conference. "In order to break through the deadlock facing Japanese society, I believe the country might as well have a female candidate."
The long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will vote on September 22 for a replacement for Yasuo Fukuda, who abruptly resigned a week ago as public support dwindled and Asia's largest economy faltered.
Koike is expected to face a tough challenge from Taro Aso, 67, a flamboyant former foreign minister who is making his fourth bid for the country's top job.
Some LDP heavyweights want to hold a snap election soon after the next prime minister takes charge, hoping to seize on the new leader's initial popularity.
Koike said that the keyword of her campaign would be "reform" -- drawing a contrast to Aso, who supports government spending to boost the economy despite a ballooning public debt.
Koike, who is fluent in English and Arabic, is a foreign policy expert who has served as defence and environment minister.
She said she would introduce an environmental tax, such as one on carbon emissions -- an idea unpopular with businesses but which green groups say is needed for Japan to fight global warming.
"I believe this is necessary to make a shift in the structure of Japan's energy consumption," Koike said.
As the LDP prepared for a showdown, the main opposition Democratic Party re-elected its leader, Ichiro Ozawa, unopposed.
The Democratic Party was set to hold its own election on September 21, but no candidates had filed by Monday's deadline to oppose Ozawa, a 66-year-old former LDP heavyweight with a love of bare-knuckles political battle.
Ozawa outlined a platform that includes scrapping an unpopular medical plan for the elderly and diluting the power of Japan's bureaucracy.
"I will do my best, considering this is my last chance to put an end to the LDP-led government and bring about a government that puts a priority on people's lives," said Ozawa, a former heavy smoker with a history of health problems.
The LDP has been in power for all but 10 months since 1955 with strong support from big business and the countryside. But Ozawa led the opposition to a landmark victory last year, seizing one house of parliament amid a backlash over LDP scandals and free-market reforms.
The Yomiuri Shimbun said that Aso may propose this week to lower taxes -- contrary to economists' conventional wisdom that Japan needs a tax hike.
Kaoru Yosano, 70, the current economic and fiscal policy minister, announced his candidacy Monday with an appeal to explain to the public the need to rebuild the government's finances.
"I believe politicians should never mislead the public by showing some rosy pictures," Yosano said.
"The LDP is facing the biggest crisis since its creation," Yosano said. "I will contest the election with high spirits and the courage to lead Japan."
A weekend poll of 1,000 voters by the private Asahi network showed support for the LDP has risen amid interest in the contest to replace Fukuda.
Nearly 43 percent of people polled backed the LDP, up from 37 percent in August, while support for the main opposition sagged to 26 percent from 29 percent, according to the survey aired Monday.
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