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Japan Leadership Race Not Much of a Race

Domestic politics in Japan are as dull as ever, it seems. Again, the ruling party has united around a candidate without much of a debate or much campaigning. But Iran may have just made the general election interesting.

Less than two weeks after Prime Minister Fukuda resigned, it's all but certain that Taro Aso, former foreign minister, will win the presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and with it the prime minister's office.

Aso has already locked up 50% of support. His nearest challenger, former defense minister Yuriko Koike, has barely over 8% - although she did pick up the backing of Junichiro Koizumi, the very popular former prime minister. It seems to have been too little, too late, however.

Campaigning has been tame; the only debate between candidates was a dud. Aso plans to form a 'unity' cabinet including all of his rivals for the party leadership. Fears (or hopes, depending on your perspective) of a backroom brawl and intraparty strife look likely to come to naught.

The candidates will continue to 'campaign,' traveling around the country as a group to deliver their stump speeches, but the real intent there seems to be to provide the LDP a chance to showcase its talent before the general election.

That general election might be a more riveting affair, though. The Prime Minister gets to call the elections in Japan, and Aso has made some comments implying that he'd put an election off until after some attempts to push economic bills through the legislature. The opposition party will not want to hand him legislative victories, but also won't want to be seen as obstructionist.

Meanwhile, Iran is telling anyone who will listen that Japan 'does not play a significant role in international and political affairs,' in an extremely nasty campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council. That's not likely to sit well with the very conservative Aso.

The two parties are divided over how Japan can best play an influential role internationally, a very contentious subject in Japan. Iran's insults might be playing directly into Aso's hand, providing him the perfect opportunity to demonstrate what his supposed toughness is good for. Or the chance to look tough might prove too tempting: Aso might overreach or say something stupid, and suddenly the opposition party would have a very real chance of winning power for the first time.