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For Abe, an end Japan saw coming

PM concedes failure to break political deadlock

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who resigned abruptly yesterday after a year in power, has for weeks been a walking political corpse.

His party, the Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated Japanese politics since the 1950s, was crushed in a July parliamentary election - a humiliation that had forced previous prime ministers to quit without delay.

But that was just part of Abe's predicament. His judgment in picking a Cabinet had proven extremely faulty, as scandals and ineptitude had pushed four ministers to resign and one to kill himself.

With poll numbers dipping below 30 percent, he became an object of ridicule, derided as a "spoiled little boy" by cultural critics and broadly criticized for a nationalist agenda that neglected a tightening economic squeeze felt by many Japanese, especially in rural areas. Public faith in his competence collapsed, polls showed, when he failed to respond aggressively last spring to revelations that 50 million pension records had been misfiled.

Yet Abe, the grandson of a prime minister, the son of a foreign minister and, at 52, the youngest prime minister since the war, had clung tenaciously to power until yesterday afternoon, when he unexpectedly announced what has been obvious to the Japanese people since mid-summer.

"In the present situation, it is difficult to push ahead with effective policies that win the support and trust of the public," Abe said during a nationally televised news conference. "I need to change the situation to break the deadlock."

The deadlock refers to a parliamentary fight over the extension of Japan's high-seas refueling operation in the Indian Ocean.

For the past six years, it has been the country's principal contribution to the war in Afghanistan and President Bush, along with many other world leaders, has urged Japan to continue to help.

As recently as last weekend, Abe had said he would do everything in his power to extend the anti-terrorism law that authorizes the floating gas station, which has pumped more than 127 million gallons of free fuel, into US warships mostly.

But the operation had been seized upon by the Democratic Party of Japan, the opposition group that grabbed control of the upper house of parliament in July. Closing it was a way to demonstrate Abe's political weakness.

The party's leader, Ichiro Ozawa, has enough votes in the upper house to stop parliament from renewing the anti-terrorism law before it expires on Nov. 1.

Abe said Sunday that he would quit only if he failed to extend the Japanese fueling operation. But yesterday, with the extension fight barely begun in parliament, he decided he had indeed failed.

"I now believe we need change," he said, looking weary. "We should seek a continued mission to fight terrorism under a new prime minister."

In parliament, the debate over the fueling operation was put off until the end of the week, as the Democratic Party criticized Abe for ducking a fight he was bound to lose.

"I've been a politician for nearly 40 years, but I think this is the first time that a prime minister has remained in office after the ruling party lost a majority . . . and expressed his resignation right before parliamentary questioning," Ozawa said.

The front-runner to succeed Abe appears to be Taro Aso, a close ally, a fellow hawk on security issues and the secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which controls the powerful lower house of parliament and picks the prime minister. Aso, 66, grandson of a prime minister who negotiated the treaty that ended World War II, said yesterday it was too early to comment.

The prime minister did not announce a date for leaving office, but said he had told his party's leaders to search quickly for a replacement. The LDP soon announced it would streamline its selection and, according to national television, it planned an election for party president next week.

When he came to power a year ago this month, Abe - successor to the immensely popular Junichiro Koizumi - enjoyed high poll ratings and had some early success in improving Japan's tense relations with China and South Korea. He also pushed through an upgrade for the country's Defense Agency and made it a full ministry for the first time since the war.

But Abe seemed to squander his popularity on nationalist issues, which did not resonate with the electorate and upset many outside of Japan.

Political analysts here suggested that Abe's failure as prime minister has crippled the LDP's ability to govern Japan.

"The LDP no longer has the ability to rule," said Minoru Morita, a longtime political analyst. "Politics will not move forward unless you have someone very capable at the top. There is no such person in the LDP."

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