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Asia-pacific

Finance chief Naoto Kan voted in as new prime minister

Video by Rebecca BOWRING

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-06-04

Japanese MPs have backed Finance Minister Naoto Kan (pictured) to succeed outgoing premier Yukio Hatoyama, who quit this week after an unhappy eight-month spell in power. Kan will lead the ruling Democratic Party of Japan in a critical July poll.

REUTERS - Finance Minister Naoto Kan, a fiscal conservative once best known for battling bureaucrats, was chosen on Friday to be Japan’s next premier as the ruling party strives to repair its fortunes ahead of an upper house election.

Kan, 63, will become Japan’s fifth prime minister in three years, taking the helm as the country struggles to rein in a huge public debt, engineer growth in an ageing society, and manage ties with security ally Washington and a rising China.

The Democratic Party of Japan picked Kan by an overwhelming majority to succeed unpopular Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who quit this week ahead of an upper house poll expected in July that the ruling bloc needs to win to avoid policy deadlock.

“With all of you, I would first would like to compile firm policies or plans to rebuild Japan...ahead of the upper house election,” Kan said in his acceptance speech before leaving the stage and pumping his fist in the air.

Kan’s rise to the top job could spell bolder steps ahead to rein in a public debt that is already twice the size of the economy, although he faces opposition from many in his party ahead of the election.

Hatoyama, his voter ratings in tatters, resigned on Wednesday just eight months after the Democrats swept to power pledging to cut waste, wrest control of policy from bureaucrats, and give consumers more cash to stimulate domestic demand.

His abrupt departure has raised concerns among investors that the government will delay efforts to thrash out plans, due out this month, to cut public debt and craft a growth strategy.

Battling deflation, fiscal reform

Financial market players generally welcomed Kan as Japan’s next leader, whose selection improves the ruling bloc’s prospects at the polls, though many wondered how much would change.

“If Hatoyama had remained, the party would have had a big loss at the election and the political situation would have been chaotic,” said Hiroyuki Nakai, chief strategist at Tokai Tokyo Research.

“But with Kan in charge now, the sense of stagnation in politics and the economy is receding somewhat, even though much will depend on the make-up of the cabinet.”

Kan, a former health minister who got his start in politics as a grassroots activist, has forged an image as a fiscal conservative and occasional central bank critic since assuming the finance post in January.

He was among the few cabinet ministers to urge early debate on raising Japan’s 5 percent sales tax, a step economists say is vital to fund the huge social welfare costs of a greying society.

Kan said in a statement that he would work with the Bank of Japan to beat the deflation bedevilling Japan’s economy.

As finance minister, Kan has pressured the central bank to do more in the battle against deflation, although for now the government and BOJ seem to be on the same page.

He also said he would keep Japan’s policy to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels.

Financial markets will be watching the new leader’s comments on currencies as well.

“(Kan’s) appearance of being in favour of a weaker yen is being viewed positively by the stock market. For the Nikkei to move much over 10,000, we need currencies to move towards a weaker yen,” said Kenichi Hirano, operating officer at Tachibana Securities.

Grassroots activist, Ozawa factor

Unlike his recent predecessors as premier, Kan does not hail from a political dynasty. That could appeal to voters weary of leaders born with silver spoons in their mouths who proved inept at governing.

He got his start in politics as a grassroots student activist, later joining small political parties before helping to found the then-opposition Democratic Party in 1996.

Kan defeated his only rival, 50-year-old Shinji Tarutoko, a little-known lawmaker who had won backing from some supporters of party powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa.

Ozawa, seen as pulling the strings in Hatoyama’s government, also quit his key post as party secretary-general this week in an effort to improve the party’s image, tarnished by funding scandals that embroiled Ozawa, Hatoyama and other lawmakers.

Kan, who helped found the DPJ in 1996 and is hardly a fresh face, has made clear he wants to sideline the 68-year-old Ozawa, whose image as an old-style wheeler dealer has undermined the Democrats’ pitch as purveyors of change.

But while the wily Ozawa may withdraw into the shadows, sceptics question whether his influence will entirely fade.

That matters because Ozawa, known as a master campaign strategist, is reluctant to promise bold fiscal reform steps such as raising the sales tax ahead of the upper house poll.

Kan is to be voted in as premier by parliament later in the day. The new leader had been expected to form a new cabinet later the same day, but Kyodo news agency said Kan had decided to wait until the beginning of next week.

The Democrats swept to power in a historic election last year and will run the government whatever the outcome of the July upper house poll, but the ruling bloc needs to win a majority in that chamber to ensure that legislation is enacted smoothly.

Media surveys showed Hatoyama’s resignation had given the faltering party a boost, but analysts have said the Democrats and their tiny ally, the conservative People’s New Party, might have to find new partners, including small partners recently formed by defectors from the ousted Liberal Democrats.

Kan faces a tough task keeping ties with the United States on track, since a deal clinched by Hatoyama with Washington to shift a U.S. airbase to the southern Japan island of Okinawa is staunchly opposed by local residents.

Kan became Japan’s most popular politician for a time when as health minister in 1996, he forced bureaucrats to expose a scandal over HIV-tainted blood products.
 

Date created : 2010-06-04

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