Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda arrives at a press conference after being elected president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2007, in Tokyo. Moderate veteran Fukuda easily won election as president of Japan's struggling ruling party Sunday, assuring his selection as the new prime minister in a parliamentary vote later this week. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
Japan's chronically unpopular prime minister suddenly announced his resignation after less than a year in office Monday, throwing the world's second-largest economy into political confusion.
Yasuo Fukuda, in a hastily arranged evening news conference, said he was stepping down to avoid a "vacuum" as the deeply troubled government heads into a special session in the politically split parliament.
The 72-year-old leader made the announcement just days after unveiling $18 billion in spending to shore up the flagging economy. Growth has stalled amid anemic consumer spending and rising fuel and food prices.
"I felt that we must particularly stress the importance of the economy," Fukuda said in the nationally televised address. "If it will help even a little bit to make the parliamentary session go smoother, I decided that it might be better for someone other than me to lead."
Fukuda, whose father also served as prime minister, suffered from persistently low approval ratings as he presided over a parliament split between the ruling party and the opposition. One poll published Monday showed support at 29 percent, down sharply over the past month.
Fukuda recently installed former Foreign Minister Taro Aso as secretary-general of the ruling party. Aso has kept a low profile during nearly all of Fukuda's term and could be seen as a fresh start for the party.
The resignation prolonged the political uncertainty that has plagued Japan since the popular Junichiro Koizumi left the premiership two years ago.
Koizumi's hand-picked successor, Shinzo Abe, lasted only a year in office, resigning in September 2007 for health reasons. Fukuda had been considered a steady elder who would lend stability to the office.
Fukuda, however, was never able to overcome the divisions in parliament, where his ruling Liberal Democratic Party controlled the lower house and the opposition dominated the upper house.
The opposition, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, repeatedly delayed Fukuda's most closely watched legislative initiatives in parliament, such as the renewal of Japan's anti-terror mission in the Indian Ocean and the selection of a new central bank governor.
Looming economic problems have also troubled the government in recent months. The economy shrank sharply in the second quarter, effectively ending the expansion that began under Koizumi.
Fukuda alluded to his lack of popularity. He suffered throughout his term from a dowdy image in a country that had grown accustomed to Koizumi's flash. But the prime minister also acccused the opposition of creating gridlock for political gain.
"It is a fact that it took very long to decide on anything," Fukuda said. "It is unacceptable at this point to make a political deal or create a political vacuum."
Opposition leaders said Fukuda should have called general elections rather than step down. The opposition triumphed in upper house elections in 2007, and have clamored since for an early ballot for the more powerful lower house.
"He should have called elections," said Yukio Hatoyama, a DPJ leader. "It is irresponsible for him to simply resign."
Fukuda did not specify when the resignation would take effect, but presumably he will stay in office until the ruling Liberal Democratic Party can select a new leader to put before parliament for a vote. It took about two weeks for the party to choose Fukuda after Abe announced he would resign last year.