Japan Scrambles for New Leader After Prime Minister Hatoyama Resigns

By Yuri Kageyama | June 2, 2010 | 5:23 AM EDT
Tokyo (AP) - Japan's ruling party scrambled to find a new leader after Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned Wednesday, apologizing for failing to keep a campaign promise to move a contentious U.S. military base, as his party desperately tried to boost its chances in elections next month.
Finance Minister Naoto Kan, who has a clean and defiant image, emerged a likely successor. Party leaders were to huddle Friday to choose a new party leader, with a parliamentary vote for prime minister likely next week.
Sweeping into office just eight months ago by defeating the long-ruling conservatives, Hatoyama captured the imagination of many Japanese voters with his promises to bring change and transparency to government, as the country grappled with how to cope with economic stagnation and an aging, shrinking population.
So when he failed to deliver on his promises, including a pledge to move the Marine Air Station Futenma off the southern island of Okinawa, and his staff got ensnared in a political funding scandal, his approval ratings rapidly sank, falling below 20 percent.
"He could not live up to the huge expectations," said Tetsuro Kato, professor of politics at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. "He just proved himself to be a rich kid without experience and leadership skills.
"The expectations were so great, the disappointment was also great," he added.
Facing calls from within his own party to quit or imperil its chances in upper house elections likely to be held sometime in July, Hatoyama succumbed to the pressure and became Japan's fourth prime minister to resign in four years.
Hatoyama, the grandson of a prime minister, acknowledged in a news conference broadcast nationwide that he had disappointed the country with his handling of the Futenma issue, as well as the funding scandal.
"I was taking up many important efforts to make people's lives better. It is extremely sad that no one is listening to me anymore," a teary Hatoyama said at a news conference. "That is all due to my own failings."
The Democratic Party of Japan's powerful No. 2, Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa -- seen by many as a "shadow shogun" -- also resigned.
Analysts say the new prime minister faces an enormously challenging and unenviable job of steering his party through an extremely difficult election and minimizing the damage.
The leader would also have to carry out the government's promise with the U.S. to build a new base on Okinawa, and woo a disenchanted public, disgusted over Hatoyama's indecisiveness and broken promises.
The new leader may not even last long -- in case he needs to resign to take responsibility for the DPJ's poor showing in the balloting.
Among the strong contenders as Hatoyama's replacement is Kan, 63, a former health minister, who has been popular with voters after exposing a government cover-up of HIV-tainted blood products that caused thousands of hemophilia patients to contract the virus that causes AIDS. He has a reputation for speaking his mind and sometimes being hot-tempered.
Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, seen as mild and levelheaded, is another possible candidate. But his involvement in discussions over the Futenma base issue might be viewed as a negative by voters.
The slick-haired, soft-spoken Hatoyama, who grew up in a well-to-do family of politicians, may have grown too out of touch with everyday people and their economic hardships.
"I was very disappointed," said Masahiro Ueda, 38, who works for a software company, of Hatoyama's failure to deliver. "I thought he could change things, but in the end the issue just went back to square one."
Besides Futenma, Hatoyama reneged on other promises such as cash payments for children to reverse an aging society, halving the money from the initial proposal, and toll-free highways, which have been postponed.
Japanese politics tend to be unpredictable, and it is still unclear who will be picked in the jockeying of power among blocs of lawmakers in the Democratic Party. The pick will be Japan's next prime minister, because the Democrats have the majority in the lower house that chooses this nation's chief.
Hatoyama's coalition was dealt a blow over the weekend when the Social Democrats, a junior partner in the coalition, withdrew from the government after Hatoyama dismissed the party's leader, Mizuho Fukushima, from his Cabinet because she could not accept his decision on Futenma.
Half the seats in the 242-member upper house will be up for election. The DPJ and its Peoples New Party coalition partner together have 122 seats, with 56 up for grabs in July.
The DPJ and its partner can lose a majority in the chamber and still remain in power because they control the more powerful lower house. But it will make it more difficult for them to pass key legislation.
The once-powerful LDP remains in disarray after its crushing defeat last year, but recent polls show some voters may be swinging back toward the party.
Japanese media reports have also listed Transport Minister Seiji Maehara and Reform Minister Yoshito Sengoku as other possible successors.
Hiroshi Kawahara, political science professor at Waseda University, said Kan may emerge the safe choice because of his clean image -- although he is probably unable to save the party from defeat in July's elections.
"Public disappointment is now so deep that Kan alone cannot restore voters' confidence," he said.
Hideto Sakaoka, a 54-year-old company employee, says he isn't voting for the DPJ again.
"We cannot let Hatoyama lead Japan," he said. "His words and actions always kept changing, and I don't trust him anymore."
Associated Press writers Shino Yuasa, Mari Yamaguchi and Malcolm Foster contributed to this report.
Sweeping into office just eight months ago, Yukio Hatoyama promised to bring change and transparency to government. So when he failed to deliver on his promises, including a pledge to move a U.S. Marine Air Station off Okinawa, and his staff got ensnared