Man of many faces won't be grey

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 September, 2008, 12:00am

From the breadth of his smile yesterday, it was clear Taro Aso had snared the job he wanted above all else.

He had tried three times previously to become prime minister of Japan. Now his Liberal Democratic Party peers have finally given him that chance, voting him in as party chief following the resignation of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

While it may be a job he has always wanted, his timing could not be worse. The LDP - the political giant that has dominated Japan for 52 years - is in unprecedented disarray. Mr Aso's job will be to quickly boost its dangerously low standing in the opinion polls, call a snap election and defeat the insurgent Democratic Party of Japan.

Thoughts about what he might achieve if he is allowed to settle into the job of leading the world's second-largest economy can come later.

The region knows the former foreign minister as a flamboyant nationalist who, all too often, speaks his mind about his vision of a prouder, more assertive Japan, even when a more diplomatic approach is needed. Yet those who know him well say he is a pragmatist as well as a populist (this is a leader, after all, who happily reads manga comics in the back of the ministerial limousine).

In recent times he has put his habitual nationalism aside to play a pivotal role in helping promote the thaw with Beijing. Diplomats and analysts in both countries know Mr Aso may provide a bumpy ride at times, but that the overall direction is set.

His pragmatism is likely to be on full display in the coming weeks and months as he tries to avoid the fate of his two immediate predecessors - Mr Fukuda and Shinzo Abe - who both served less than a year in office. He is likely to continue the more successful policies of both men, particularly the need to broaden and deepen engagement with China, which is now Japan's biggest trading partner. His relations with South Korea and North Korea could be even trickier to juggle, given lingering territorial disputes and the legacy of family firm Aso Mining, which used Korean slaves during the Japanese occupation.

Although a right-winger, Mr Aso is no ideologue. He is already pushing hard for more government spending and for corporate and private tax cuts to help revive the long-slumbering Japanese economy, which appears on the brink of another recession.

While the crisis on Wall Street has not had a big impact on Japan yet, Mr Aso has acknowledged the need to prime such an important economy to take up the slack as its major ally struggles.

'America could face a financial crisis that rivals the Great Depression,' he said over the weekend. 'Japan has to take action by improving its economy in order to revive domestic demand.' But many leaders before Mr Aso have struggled to get the Japanese consumer spending freely after the busts of the early 1990s, and meeting his promises will take the skill of a master politician.

He is likely to reach out to political rivals in his own party to put factionalism aside in a bid to defeat the DPJ, which controls the upper house of the Diet.

If he calls an election, wins and boosts his party's standing, watching Mr Aso exercise power will be fascinating. He may be tempted to give vent to the more controversial side of his political makeup.

But for the moment, expect breezy and well-meaning vitality as he seeks to create a bounce in the polls after the grey, listless months of Mr Fukuda.