Fukuda joins race for Japan's LDP leadership

AFP , TOKYO

Sun, Sep 16, 2007 - Page 5

Yasua Fukuda, a moderate ruling party veteran, was yesterday seen pulling ahead in the two-way race to become Japan's next prime minister, reports said.

Fukuda and former foreign minister Taro Aso submitted their applications to lead the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at the party's Tokyo headquarters as the battle to succeed Shinzo Abe heated up.

"I would like to officially declare my candidacy," Fukuda, 71, told reporters, having earlier said it was time to engage in "broad dialogue" with the people.

The scandal-plagued LDP is scheduled to select its next leader on September 23. The winner then becomes Japan's prime minister as the party controls the powerful lower house of parliament.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his resignation on Wednesday following a raft of scandals, a plunge in popularity and ill health. He has since been hospitalized.

Both candidates have said Japan cannot afford to drop out of the global war on terrorism and pledged to push to extend the country's naval mission in the Indian Ocean.

"Our mission is highly regarded by the international community. We must win understanding for the need to extend," Fukuda told a joint press conference yesterday.

Fukuda, a former top government spokesman who is seen as a foreign policy dove, has already secured the "overwhelming" support of a majority of LDP members after closed-door negotiations among senior party figures, the Nikkei business daily and other media reported.

"Now I'm feeling the gravity of my responsibility as a lot of people support me," Fukuda told a joint news conference with Aso. "I want to do my best to fulfil my responsibility and regain trust in the party."

Aso, 66, who assumed the party's second-highest position in last month's cabinet reshuffle after almost two years as foreign minister, has lost twice in leadership elections -- against Abe and his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi.

"If I dropped my bid due to my inferior situation, the LDP would die out," Aso said. "Receiving your hope firmly, I want to fight through this tough situation."

Fukuda, the eldest son of late premier Takeo Fukuda, has vowed to continue reforms in the world's second largest economy and to strengthen ties with Asia.

"Reform is the main premise," Fukuda said on Friday. "On top of that, we have to consider how we can stimulate local economies."