Race for Japanese prime minister goes to run-off

August 29, 2011 - 12:20 AM
Japan Politics

Trade and Economy Minister Banri Kaieda speaks during a debate with four other candidates for the leader of Japan's ruling Democratic Party in Tokyo, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011. The five candidates vying to become Japan's next prime minister promised to resolve the country's nuclear crisis and revive its battered economy, amid widespread public cynicism about a revolving door of leaders. Kaieda, 62, had a slight lead over other candidates, Japanese media reports said Sunday. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

TOKYO (AP) — The decision on who becomes Japan's next prime minister and inherits the enormous challenges of recovering from a huge tsunami and nuclear crisis went into a runoff Monday between the trade minister and finance minister.

None of the five candidates vying for leadership of Japan's ruling party won a clear majority in the first round of voting among the party's parliament members. The winner will almost certainly become the next prime minister, replacing Naoto Kan, who announced Friday that he is stepping down after nearly 15 months plagued by public dissatisfaction with his administration.

Economy and Trade Minister Banri Kaieda — backed by a powerful behind-the-scenes party kingpin — won 143 votes in the leadership election, while Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda garnered 102. Both were short of the majority needed out of the 395 ballots cast.

The result left out the public's favorite, former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, who got only 74 votes in what will likely be seen as a triumph of back-room politics, which could anger a public that has become increasingly frustrated with Japan's politics as usual.

Democratic Party of Japan members of parliament started voting in a second round after the two remaining candidates each gave a short speech.

The winner — Japan's sixth prime minister in five years — will have to deal with a ballooning national debt, a surging yen, the massive reconstruction from March's tsunami as well as efforts to resolve a nuclear crisis that has dislocated 100,000 people.

In his final pitch before the runoff vote, Noda stressed that Japan faces two main issues: recovery from the tsunami and nuclear crisis, and the volatility of the global economy.

Kaieda, meanwhile, called on his party to reinvigorate itself by winning back the support it had from the public when it swept to power two years ago.

"We can get out from under this stagnation," he said. "These two years ahead of us may be Japan's last chance. ... This will be a time of change for our nation."