March 5, 2021

Japan Finance Minister Noda Chosen by Party as Next Premier

It was a surprise victory for Mr. Noda, who had been seen as running a distant third before the internal vote by the Democratic Party. During the campaign, Mr. Noda presented himself as a pro-business fiscal conservative who could rein in Japan’s ballooning national debt while also taming the soaring yen and battling deflation.

However, political analysts said his victory was as much about seeking a fresh start for the Democratic Party, which has floundered since taking power in a historic election two years ago. The choice of Mr. Noda, who has no large power base within the party and is not one of the Democrats’ founding members, appeared to signal an effort to move beyond deep divisions that have undermined the party.

Analysts said that he may represent the last chance for the unpopular Democrats, who seemed to have lost their way under the indecisive leadership of Naoto Kan and his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama. Mr. Noda was seen as having an opportunity to heal a deep division in the party over its scandal-tainted kingpin, Ichiro Ozawa, because he was neither a supporter nor a sharp critic of Mr. Ozawa.

Mr. Noda will take over the daunting tasks of leading Japan’s recovery from the deadly earthquake and the cleanup of radiation from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, while also overcoming the challenges of two decades of economic stagnation, an aging population and the rise of neighboring China.

Mr. Kan failed to galvanize Japan after the disaster in March or point a new direction for this seemingly rudderless nation. It remained unclear whether the relatively inexperienced Mr. Noda, who has held only one cabinet-level position but is seen as quietly competent, will fare any better in ending Japan’s drift.

“Can we do what is best for Japan, protect the livelihood of the Japanese people, revive the Japanese economy?” Mr. Noda, 54, asked in a speech. “This is what we are being called on to do.”

Mr. Noda defeated the trade minister, Banri Kaieda, by 215 to 177 votes in a runoff election on Monday, after a first ballot failed to produce a clear victor from a field of five candidates. Mr. Noda will be formally elected prime minister by the full Parliament as early as Tuesday; the Democrats control the more powerful lower house.

Political analysts are divided on Mr. Noda’s chances of overcoming the political paralysis in Japan, which has gone through six prime ministers in five years. They said that while the choice of the relatively youthful Mr. Noda represents a much-needed changing of the guard in the governing party, he will face the same fiscal constraints and resistance to change that had stymied his predecessors.

“Mr. Noda’s biggest battle will be overcoming the vested interests that have made it so hard to bring change in Japan,” said Norihiko Narita, a political scientist and president of Surugadai University outside Tokyo. “It will be extremely difficult for him to fare any better than those who came before him, to say the least.”

One of his biggest challenges will be a divided Parliament, where opposition parties like the Liberal Democrats have used control of the upper house to block the Democrats, in hopes of forcing an early general election. During the campaign, Mr. Noda signaled a greater willingness to compromise with the opposition than did the other candidates, or Mr. Kan.

He also appears to mark a departure from Mr. Kan on the crucial question of the future of nuclear energy.

While Mr. Kan called for ending what he called Japan’s dependence on nuclear power, Mr. Noda has followed the business community in saying that the nation needs nuclear power to prevent electricity shortages that could further cripple the economy.

In foreign affairs, he has said he will maintain close ties with Washington and support an existing deal to keep the Futenma air base on Okinawa.

However, he is a social conservative who, analysts warn, might provoke neighbors like China with comments like one he recently made, saying that Japan’s wartime leaders were not war criminals.

During the brief campaign, Mr. Noda tried to set himself apart by displaying a sense of humor in an otherwise drab race, comparing himself to a loach, a less than attractive fish that scours the mud for food.

“I will stink of mud and work until I sweat on behalf of the people,” he said.

Whether his self-depreciating style will charm voters remains to be seen. Analysts said his lack of recognition could work in his favor by not building up expectations in the beginning that he cannot fulfill.

“He won’t start with strong approval ratings, which will put less pressure on him to deliver right away,” said Hirotada Asakawa, an independent political analyst.

“Let us end the politics of resentment,” Mr. Noda said. “Let’s make a more stable and reliable political leadership.”

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