TOKYO // Japan's chronically unpopular prime minister suddenly announced his resignation after less than a year in office today, throwing the world's second-largest economy into political confusion. Yasuo Fukuda, in a hastily arranged evening news conference, said he was stepping down to avoid a "vacuum" as the deeply troubled government heads into a special session in the politically split parliament.
The 72-year-old leader made the announcement just days after unveiling trillions of yen in fresh spending to shore up the flagging economy. Growth has stalled amid anemic consumer spending and rising fuel and food prices. "I felt that we must particularly stress the importance of the economy," Mr Fukuda said in the nationally televised address. "If it will help even a little bit to make the parliamentary session go smoother, I decided that it might be better for someone other than me to lead." Mr Fukuda, whose father also served as prime minister, suffered from persistently low support ratings as he presided over a parliament split between the ruling party and the opposition. One poll published today showed his support rating at 29 per cent, down sharply over the past month. Mr Fukuda recently installed his most apparent successor, the former foreign minister, Taro Aso, as secretary-general of the ruling party in a Cabinet shakeup.
Mr Aso has kept a low profile during nearly all of Mr Fukuda's term and could be seen as offering a fresh start for the party. The resignation prolonged the political uncertainty that has plagued Japan since the popular Junichiro Koizumi left the premiership two years ago. Mr Koizumi's hand-picked successor, Shinzo Abe, lasted only a year in office, resigning in September 2007 for health reasons. Mr Fukuda had been considered a steady elder who would lend stability to the office. Mr Fukuda, however, was never able to overcome the divisions in parliament, where his ruling Liberal Democratic Party controlled the lower house and the opposition dominated the upper house. The opposition, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, repeatedly delayed Mr Fukuda's most closely watched legislative initiatives in parliament, such as the renewal of Japan's anti-terror mission in the Indian Ocean and the selection of a new central bank governor. Looming economic problems have also troubled the government in recent months. The economy shrank sharply in the second quarter, effectively ending the expansion that began under Mr Koizumi.
Mr Fukuda alluded to his lack of popularity. He suffered throughout his term from a dowdy image in a country that had grown accustomed to Mr Koizumi's flash. "You may say it's irresponsible for me to resign at this time. Well, it would be good if parliamentary proceedings went smoothly if I stayed on, but in my case, I also had support ratings, along with various other problems," Mr Fukuda said.
Mr Fukuda, however, attacked the opposition for creating gridlock for political gain. "It is a fact that it took very long to decide on anything," Mr Fukuda said. "It is unacceptable at this point to make a political deal or create a political vacuum." "I am hopeful that we can create a strong leadership and move forward to realize our policies and objectives," he added. Opposition leaders criticized Mr Fukuda for stepping down, arguing that he should have called general elections instead. The opposition triumphed in upper house elections in 2007, and have clamoured since for an early ballot for the more powerful lower house. "He should have called elections," said Yukio Hatoyama, a DPJ leader. "It is irresponsible for him to simply resign." Mr Fukuda did not specify when the resignation would take effect, but presumably he will stay in office until the ruling Liberal Democratic Party can select a new leader to put before parliament for a vote. It took about two weeks for the party to choose Mr Fukuda after Mr Abe announced he would resign last year. The support rate for Mr Fukuda's Cabinet was at 29 per cent in a survey conducted over the weekend, down 9 percentage points from the previous poll conducted shortly after Mr Fukuda reshuffled his Cabinet in early August, according to a joint survey by the Nikkei business daily and TV Tokyo published today. The disapproval rating was at 63 per cent, up 14 points in the telephone survey from Friday to yesterday.