TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s shock resignation sent his ruling party scrambling to find a new leader who could revive public support following an election defeat in July and a string of scandals.
Abe, who took office a year ago pledging to raise Japan’s global security profile and rewrite its pacifist constitution, said on Wednesday he was quitting to try to resolve deadlock over a naval mission supporting U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan.
Senior officials said health problems were a factor in Abe’s decision. His aides were not available to comment on speculation that a soon-to-be-published tabloid magazine article on suspicions he had evaded taxes had prompted his departure.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was likely to approve later on Thursday a plan to choose Abe’s successor on September 19, with some LDP politicians demanding the party poll be held in an “fair and open” manner to win back voters’ trust.
Abe will stay as caretaker until a successor is picked.
LDP Secretary-General Taro Aso, a former foreign minister under Abe who shares his hawkish views on security, is seen as a frontrunner. But his closeness to Abe and a penchant for gaffes leaves doubts whether Aso’s victory is assured, analysts said.
Other names floated include former finance minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and former chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said U.S. President George W. Bush had “appreciated the working relationship” with Abe.
“What goes on in terms of Japanese internal politics, is internal politics. But Japan remains a vital ally, we continue to work closely with the Japanese on a whole range of issues.”
Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, turned down a request to run for the post again, Kyodo news agency reported.
“Aso will probably be the next prime minister and keep all or most of the cabinet ministers. The general direction of policy won’t change,” said political commentator Ichiro Maeda.
While the opposition took control of parliament’s upper house in the July election, the LDP and its junior partner have a large majority in the lower house, which picks the prime minister.
Some LDP politicians and local chapters, worried the party could not win the next general election with Abe in charge, had pushed him to step down.
No election for the lower house need be held until 2009, but some analysts say parliamentary deadlock resulting from the opposition’s grip on the upper house, could trigger one sooner.
The 52-year-old Abe, Japan’s youngest prime minister since the end of World War Two, reshuffled his cabinet only last month to win back public approval, but a poll this week showed support was stuck below 30 percent.
Abe had indicated that he would step down if he failed to extend the Japanese naval mission supporting U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, but the timing of his move was unexpected.
“It is the worst possible timing,” LDP politician Gen Nakatani told Fuji Television on Wednesday.
“Parliament has started and it’s now lost its leading act. There will be confusion, loss and trouble.”
Opposition parties had planned to grill Abe in parliament on Wednesday over the legislation to continue the navy’s Afghan support mission in the Indian Ocean.
Abe said he had decided to quit because opposition Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa had declined to hold a one-on-one meeting about the Afghan support mission.
Ozawa denied he had rejected a meeting, adding that he was ready to meet Abe’s successor, although he said his party’s stance on the issue would not change.
Abe took office last September with approval ratings of around 60 percent, but his support had dwindled due to government mishandling of pension records and a series of scandals that cost him five cabinet ministers, including one who committed suicide.
Abe has put much of his energy into education reform and diplomacy, moving swiftly after taking office to improve relations with relations with China and South Korea.
Some analysts said Abe’s resignation might not affect economic policies much but would sour stock market sentiment.
Others noted his successor faced tough policy headaches including cutting Japan’s huge public debt, tax reform and reviving weak regional economies.