TOKYO — Japan’s governing party elected Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda to become the next prime minister on Monday, choosing a relative political unknown to lead this shaken nation’s recovery from the tsunami and nuclear accident in March, and revive its moribund economy.
It was a surprise victory for Noda, who had been seen running a distant third before Monday’s internal vote by the Democratic Party. During the campaign, Noda ran largely on economic policies, presenting himself as a pro-business, fiscal conservative who could rein in Japan’s ballooning national debt while taming the soaring yen and battling crippling price declines known as deflation.
However, political analysts said his victory was as much about seeking a fresh start for the Democratic Party.
The choice of Noda, who has no large power base within the party, and is not one of the Democrats’ original founding members, appeared to be an effort to find a new common ground for a party that has been undermined by deep divisions.
Noda must now 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 longer-term challenges of two decades of economic stagnation, an aging population and the rise of neighboring China.
Noda will replace Naoto Kan, who failed to galvanize Japan after the disaster in March, or point a new direction for this seemingly rudderless nation.
“Can we do what is best for Japan, protect the livelihood of the Japanese people, revive the Japanese economy?” Noda, 54, said in a speech. “This is what we are being called on to do.”
In Monday’s vote, Noda defeated the trade minister, Banri Kaieda, 215 to 177 in a run-off election, after a first ballot failed to produce a clear victor from a field of five candidates. Noda will be formally elected prime minister as early as Tuesday by Parliament.
Political analysts were uncertain on whether Noda would be able to overcome the political paralysis in a nation that gone through six prime ministers in five years.
“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.”