August 26, 2011 7:01 am

Kan exit opens way for new Japan PM

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Naoto Kan©Reuters

Naoto Kan, prime minister, attends a general meeting of his ruling Democratic Party of Japan lawmakers at the parliament building in Tokyo

Naoto Kan has announced his resignation as leader of Japan’s ruling Democratic party, in effect ending his turbulent 15-month tenure as prime minister and triggering an election for the country’s sixth leader in six years.

“As promised, I will step down as president [of the DPJ]. When the new president is chosen I will also resign as prime minister,” Mr Kan told a DPJ executive meeting on Friday.

The DPJ is scheduled to hold a leadership contest on Monday and Japan’s sixth prime minister in six years is expected to be chosen by the Diet (parliament) the following day.

Mr Kan’s resignation comes almost three months after he first indicated he would step down to make room for a younger leader.

That pledge enabled the unpopular prime minister to survive a vote of no-confidence in June, and extend his premiership for nearly three months.

The DPJ leadership race will be fought over a broad range of issues, including how to finance the reconstruction of Japan’s earthquake-devastated northeastern coast, whether to restart nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima accident, and longer-term energy policy.

But the victor will also be faced by an economy that contracted for a third consecutive quarter in the three months to June with gross domestic product falling 1.3 per cent on an annualised basis. Economists are concerned that a pick-up from reconstruction activity could be dented by weak overseas demand partly due to a global slowdown but also due to the strength of the yen, which earlier in August reached a new postwar high against the US dollar.

As many as seven DPJ MPs have said they plan to run in the race or are considering doing so, making it highly likely that a winner will emerge only after two rounds of voting.

The candidates include Seiji Maehara, former foreign minister, Yoshihiko Noda, finance minister, Banri Kaieda, economy and trade minister and Michihiko Kano, agriculture minister.

During Mr Kan’s troubled tenure as prime minister, Japan was rocked by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake along its northeastern coast, which killed more than 20,000 people and wiped out whole towns.

The DPJ suffered a humiliating defeat in upper house elections soon after Mr Kan took over as prime minister in June 2010, resulting in a divided parliament that stymied efforts by the administration to pass legislation.

His propensity to flip-flop on policy and the DPJ’s failure to deliver on its promises contributed to a slide in Mr Kan’s approval rating to a dismal 13.3 per cent, according to a recent poll by Jiji, the news agency.

Given that the new prime minister is likely to face the same parliamentary impasse that plagued Mr Kan’s premiership, some candidates have called for a “grand coalition” with the opposition Liberal Democrats.

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