Disaster-hit Japan faces leadership change

TOKYO - The revolving door to the Japan prime minister's residence is likely to spin again before the end of this month as Naoto Kan bows out to make way for the country's sixth new leader in five years.

The centre-left premier is widely expected to quit within about a week, almost half a year since the devastating March 11 quake and tsunami sorely tested his leadership and turned him into Japan's top anti-nuclear crusader.

The frontrunner to take his post is his finance minister, Yoshihiko Noda, a less divisive figure who has even floated the idea of a grand coalition with the conservative opposition to tackle Japan's problems.

Trade Minister Banri Kaeda and former transport minister Sumio Mabuchi have also thrown their hats into the ring, while others, including former foreign minister Seiji Maehara, are weighing their options.

Whoever takes the job faces urgent challenges, chiefly the need to rebuild from Japan's worst post-war disaster while keeping in check a public debt mountain that is already twice the size of the economy.

"The task of overcoming the ongoing crisis for the nation requires strong leadership from politicians," the Yomiuri daily said in an editorial.

"After Kan steps down, the ruling and opposition parties must first and foremost join hands to establish a strong framework for promoting reconstruction from the disaster."

Given the economic woes now hitting the United States and Europe, the new premier will be at pains to keep Japan's budding post-quake recovery afloat, despite a soaring yen that threatens the nation's export giants.

Then there is the Fukushima nuclear crisis, which has driven tens of thousands from their homes and and battered the farm, fisheries and tourism sectors.

Japan's triple disaster - which claimed over 20,000 lives, wiped out entire towns and sparked the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl - also had a huge impact on Japan's political landscape.

The seismic disaster struck on the watch of Kan's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which was brought to power two years ago in a landslide election that ended half a century of almost unbroken conservative rule.

In the days before March 11, Kan's approval ratings, hurt by his talk of tax hikes and by party funding scandals, had slipped below 20 per cent, about the level where his predecessor bowed out less than a year earlier.

The quake arguably gave Kan another lease of life by forcing a short-lived political truce which, to the dismay of Japanese voters, gave way to renewed bickering and infighting within about a month.

Charges that Kan had bungled the response to the calamity quickly grew louder, even from within DPJ ranks, forcing a no-confidence vote in June that Kan only survived by promising to step down soon.

In the lame-duck period that followed, Kan came to strongly embrace an anti-nuclear cause that has defined his premiership and seen him throw out the rule book of Japan's consensus-based political system.

Kan has advocated a nuclear-free future for Japan and gone to war with the power companies, bureaucrats and politicians who make up what has been called Japan's "nuclear village", making more enemies along the way.

The message tapped into popular sentiment, with some polls saying 70 per cent of Japanese want to phase out atomic power, but ran into strong opposition from Japan's business groups and the country's powerful bureaucracy.

One key condition Kan set for his departure was the passage of a bill to promote renewable energies such as solar and wind, and to break the monopoly the big power utilities have to produce electricity for Japan.

With that law and a budget financing bill expected to pass this week, the stage is set for the DPJ to hold a party meeting as early as August 28, where Kan would be replaced as DPJ president and therefore premier.

Although the race to replace Kan remains open, the man to beat is the 54-year-old Noda, a fiscal hawk and consensus choice who is the favourite of the opposition and of financial markets.

Noda has signalled that he supports tax hikes to rein in Japan's public debt, now twice the size of the $5 trillion economy, and to keep financing the ballooning welfare burden in the rapidly-ageing society.

He has also said that Japan, facing a summertime power crunch, should restart its nuclear reactors once they pass safety tests. That may be an uphill struggle for now, say some commentators.

"Kan has been very unpopular, but many people have supported his policies," said Tomoaki Iwai, politics professor at Nihon University. "Promoting nuclear power now would go against the flow of public opinion."