Aso takes charge of Japan

September 24, 2008 12:00 am

, TOKYO, September 24 – Flamboyant conservative Taro Aso took charge as Japan’s new prime minister Wednesday, pledging to work for a "cheerful" nation by reviving an economy in the doldrums.

The divided parliament voted along party lines to install the former foreign minister, who appointed a cabinet filled with fellow conservatives. Wasting no time, he was to fly early Thursday to New York for the UN General Assembly.

With elections expected within months, the comic book-loving Aso started the job with an unusually sombre tone. He said he would push for emergency measures to revive Asia’s largest economy, which contracted in the last quarter.

"To make Japan a cheerful and strong nation — that is my mission," Aso said. "I truly feel the heavy responsibility of being prime minister."

"I am especially aware of people’s worries about the economy, complaints about their everyday lives and distrust of politics," Aso said.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) picked Aso on Monday as its new leader by an overwhelming majority, placing its trust in a crowd-pleasing — though gaffe-prone — campaigner.

Aso replaced Yasuo Fukuda, a mild centrist whose ratings dived after he raised medical costs for the elderly.

Analysts expect Aso to call a general election as early as late October in a bid to hold off gains by the rising opposition, which has pounded away at the LDP’s traditional strongholds in the countryside.

"The final battle has begun. The autumn of elections — the autumn to change the government — is coming," said opposition chief Ichiro Ozawa, whose bloc controls one house of parliament.

"No matter who becomes prime minister, things will remain the same" under the LDP, he said.

The LDP has been in power for all but 10 months since 1955, but Aso will be its fourth prime minister in the past two years as the party struggles over a raft of scandals and, more recently, a faltering economy.

Aso said his first priority would be to pump stimulative spending into the economy, the world’s second largest but teetering on the brink of recession, clashing with LDP free-market reformists who in recent years have pushed to tame a ballooning public debt.

He said he would press for parliament to pass emergency spending measures before thinking about elections, saying "we have obviously been in recession since the beginning of the year."

Aso tapped as his finance minister Shoichi Nakagawa who, echoing the incoming premier, said he would make "full use of all sorts of policies" to invigorate the economy.

"Some people label us as freespenders or old-guard cronies as we say we are not hesitant on fiscal spending," Nakagawa, a former industry minister, wrote in a newspaper column. "But we do not intend to backtrack on reforms."

Nakagawa — who was shunned by the more dovish Fukuda — has caused controversy through strong criticism of China and calls for Japan, the only nation to have suffered atomic attack, to study developing nuclear weapons.

"This is the lineup aimed at avoiding any political scandals ahead of the imminent general elections," said Shujiro Kato, professor of politics at Toyo University.

"Nobody reported to be appointed as minister is a fresh face."

One exception is Yuko Obuchi, the 34-year-old daughter of late prime minister Keizo Obuchi, who becomes the youngest-ever cabinet minister in Japan.

The foreign ministry went to Hirofumi Nakasone, 62, son of another former premier.

In a bid to ensure party unity, Aso kept in place Fiscal and Economic Policy Minister Kaoru Yosano, who had challenged him for the top job arguing that Aso’s economic policies were irresponsible.

Another rival, Shigeru Ishiba, was made farm minister, a position that has frequently been hit by scandal. Ishiba survived resignation calls as he managed crises as Fukuda’s defence minister.


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