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Abe Elected Leader of Japan's Governing Party


In Japan, it is Shinzo Abe by a landslide. The government's chief cabinet secretary, as expected, has swept the election for leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party, putting him in position to take over as prime minister next week.

In an intra-party contest that pitted three members of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's cabinet against each other, the early favorite, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, easily defeated Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki to become party president Wednesday.

Since the L.D.P. has a majority in the lower house of Parliament, Abe is now considered a shoo-in to be selected prime minister by the house on September 26.

Abe whose grandfather and great uncle were prime ministers, captured two-thirds of the 702 votes in the election at the party's Tokyo headquarters.

When the official tally was announced, L.D.P. lawmakers in the auditorium cheered Abe's victory.

Abe, in his first news conference as party chief, pledged to carry on the economic reforms of the Koizumi administration, and confront issues arising from the nation's population decline. He repeated his oft-stated campaign theme of making Japan "a beautiful country."

Prime Minister Koizumi, stepping down after five years in the post, offered Abe immediate congratulations, but told party lawmakers that his successor must now prove himself.

He says while the L.D.P. has put its faith in Abe, the new party president has to convince the public of his ability to lead the country.

Abe, who will be 52 on Thursday, is poised to become the first Japanese prime minister born after the Second World War.

Columbia University Professor Gerald Curtis is an expert on Japanese politics. He says the young and relatively inexperienced politician has to outline specifics of his policy goals quickly. Otherwise, he says, people will focus on Abe's style rather than substance, prompting unflattering comparisons with the charismatic Mr. Koizumi.

"As long as people think about style, he's going to look like a weak shadow of Prime Minister Koizumi," he said. "So he has to push something in the way of substance. And there, frankly, at the moment, it's very hard to see where the substance is in his policies."

Abe is viewed as a conservative who favors rewriting Japan's U.S.-imposed post-war constitution. Article 9 of the constitution limits Japan's military to a self-defense role. Abe favors modifying the clause to allow Japan to freely engage in foreign peacekeeping operations and take a more equal partnership for its defense, now primarily provided by American forces.

He has also pledged to improve relations with Japan's neighbors, especially China and South Korea, which are leery of any increase in Japanese militarism. If selected prime minister, his goals should become clearer on September 29, when he will be required to give a policy speech.