Outraged With the Opposition, Japan's PM Resigns

Right up until the last minute, virtually no one in Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's entourage—not his ministers, not his private secretary, not even his wife—knew that he was about to resign. Some journalists, hearing of the hastily called press conference, thought that Fukuda might be announcing a surprise trip to North Korea. What Fukuda actually had to say left everyone—voters as well as Tokyo's political elite—aghast.

Fukuda declared he was resigning because the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which controls the upper house of Parliament, was refusing to make deals, blocking vital legislation and just generally being a pain. Such an attitude might baffle countries where elections routinely result in power-sharing between rival parties, like France or the United States. But in Japan, opposition was relatively unfamiliar until just a few years ago, when the terrain began to gradually open up and the DPJ picked off some of the LDP's traditional constituencies. Clearly Fukuda, 72, and many old warhorses of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had governed the country with little competition for more than half a century, are having trouble adjusting to a genuine multiparty democracy.

To be fair, Fukuda's own lack of popularity was undeniably hampering the LDP's chances in the general election that must be called by September 2009. Fukuda's approval rating had sagged to 29 percent—even after a much-ballyhooed cabinet shake-up in August. With a parliamentary session later this month shaping up as an angry showdown, and with Japan's longest postwar economic recovery losing steam, Fukuda's prospects for reviving LDP fortunes looked bleak.

That job now likely goes to the 67-year-old Taro Aso, another LDP grandee, who has a penchant for making outrageous remarks about World War II and other politically sensitive subjects. Aso may be a tougher person than Fukuda, but so far there's little to indicate that he has better ideas for coping with the opposition. The other candidates are largely untried. Internal party opposition to Aso's candidacy looks likely—perhaps from the camp of ex-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi—and analysts will be parsing the results for clues to the LDP's future stability. There's also been a rift growing within the party between economic reformers and those who favor more cautious and traditional strategies. Intriguingly, one of the potential challengers is a woman, who could pull a Sarah Palin and stir things up if she gives a strong performance when the party chooses its new leader on Sept. 22 (since the LDP controls the lower house, its pick automatically becomes the next P.M.).