Japan's ruling party lawmakers overwhelmingly picked Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi as their choice for prime minister, ignoring public calls for a fresh face to help surmount the country's drastic economic problems.
Obuchi, a party stalwart with a long but conventional career in government, snared 225 of the 411 votes cast in the first ballot, easily beating former Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama and Health Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Kajiyama came in second with 102 votes and Koizumi took 84.While the vote was technically to pick the president of the Liberal Democratic Party, that person automatically becomes the party's candidate for prime minister when Parliament convenes to choose a new premier, expected on July 30. Obuchi is nearly certain to win because the LDP has a comfortable majority in the powerful lower house, which can overrule opposition from the upper house.
People in Tokyo expressed resigned displeasure at the LDP's choice of staid party-insider Obuchi, who had the least popular support among the candidates.
"I'm beyond disappointment," said trading company employee Yuko Imamura, 28. "This way, there was no point in having the upper-house elections."
Obuchi, 61, would take over from Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who announced last week that he would resign after the party's stunning setback in July 12 elections for the upper house. Obuchi also would assume stewardship of Japan's economy, now in its worst recession since World War II.
The new LDP standard-bearer vowed today to straighten out Japan's financial mess. "The key issue at the moment is to repair Japan's economy, fulfill our expected role in the international community and ease the public's uncertainty about the future," Obuchi told reporters in a news conference after the vote.
It was uncertain, however, if Obuchi - backed by the largest and most traditional wing of the party - was up to the task of making major changes analysts say are needed to solve the myriad problems with his country's economy.
So far, he has prescribed an income tax cut worth $42.6 billion and $70.9 billion in new spending to kick start growth and spur lagging consumption, moves economists say are needed but possibly insufficient.
"There will be a new face, but no big policy changes," said Shigenori Okazaki, a political analyst at SBC Warburg Japan Ltd., pointing out that Obuchi is supported by the same party cliques that were behind Hashimoto.
In currency trading, Obuchi's victory failed to trigger a massive sell-off of the yen that some had predicted, despite some doubt about the strength of his economic program. Obuchi was elected after trading ended on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.