Japan’s prime minister-to-be chooses ruling party chiefs

TOKYO: The dovish veteran politician selected by Japan’s troubled ruling party as its pick for prime minister chose his party lieutenants Monday, as the ruling bloc readied itself to battle the resurgent opposition in parliament.

Yasuo Fukuda, the 71-year-old son of a prime minister and a former right-hand man to two premiers, easily won Sunday’s vote for president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, a position that ensures his election as prime minister in parliament Tuesday.

On Monday, Fukuda picked three men with Cabinet experience for top party posts.

Education Minister Bunmei Ibuki, 69, was tapped to replace Fukuda’s opponent in the party leadership race, Taro Aso, as secretary-general.

Former Trade Minister Toshihiro Nikai, 68, was named as chairman of the General Council, while former Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, 62, becomes the party’s policy chief.

In a sign that Fukuda may remain beholden to old ways of doing business, the selections were all heads of internal party factions that supported him in the race.

Fukuda’s opponent, Taro Aso, had been critical of the party’s factional politics, whose power Abe and his charismatic predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had sought to diminish.

The new LDP president faces daunting challenges: The upper house of parliament is dominated by the opposition, and sentiment is growing in favor of snap elections that could endanger the LDP’s grip on the lower house.

As prime minister, Fukuda has said he will aim to improve ties with Asia, maintain Japan’s pro-U.S. foreign policy by extending a naval mission in support of Western forces in Afghanistan, and provide assistance to rural areas left behind by the economic recovery.

He also vowed to rebuild the LDP’s popularity, which has plunged under a year of scandals and policy missteps by Abe, who has been hospitalized with stress-related stomach problems since announcing on Sept. 12 that he would resign.

“My party is determined to start anew and cooperate with the New Komeito and the opposition for the smooth operation of parliament,” Fukuda told reporters Tuesday.

The party elder, who served as chief Cabinet secretary in 2000-04, was seen as a symbol of stability after the uncertainty of the Abe administration, though some were worried the new premier-to-be would be too old-guard.

The political environment and LDP that Fukuda inherits are in serious disarray.

Abe, 53, came into office a year ago with high support ratings and an unquestioned ruling coalition dominance in parliament.

But he quickly frittered away those advantages as his Cabinet overflowed with money scandals and he pressed ahead with a nationalist agenda while people demanded more attention to bread-and-butter issues such as pensions.

The LDP suffered a serious blow in elections in July for the upper house of parliament, in which the resurgent opposition seized control of the chamber, heightening calls for snap elections for the lower house as well.

Abe apologized to the party for his sudden resignation in a message read after Fukuda’s selection, but said he would not resign as a lawmaker. The government also said it was possible Abe would hold a news conference at his hospital on Monday.

Fukuda’s first order of business will be pushing the Afghanistan support measure through parliament, where the opposition has vowed to defeat it. Japanese tankers have been refueling coalition ships in the Indian Ocean since 2001, and the U.S. — Japan’s top ally and protecter — has been pushing for an extension of the operation.

It was unclear, however, how long Fukuda would be able to stave off calls for lower house elections. He has termed such calls “understandable.”

Media reports said the LDP wanted to pass the Afghan measure and the national budget early next year before dissolving the lower house.

Associated Press Writer Hiroko Tabuchi contributed to this report.


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September 2007
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