Japan’s new leader wins support for Afghan mission

TOKYO (AFP) — Japan’s new prime minister won public and international support Thursday for his first key task of renewing a military mission backing Afghanistan, a battle that helped bring down his predecessor.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, a seasoned lawmaker who took charge Tuesday, has been welcomed with strong approval ratings as voters hope he brings stability after a tumultuous year under Shinzo Abe.

Polls published Thursday showed public opinion had shifted to support an extension of Japan’s military mission, while 11 nations made a joint appeal for the opposition to drop objections to renew the deployment.

Meeting with top bureaucrats Thursday, Fukuda said his government was in an “unprecedentedly tense situation.”

“It is extremely important to restore trust,” Fukuda said. “Without having trust from the people of the country, we will not be able to realise any policies or reforms.”

The opposition swept July elections in a backlash against scandals that surrounded Abe’s government, ousting the ruling Liberal Democratic Party from control of the upper house of parliament for the first time.

The opposition, saying that officially pacifist Japan should not be part of “American wars,” has vowed to end the naval mission in the Indian Ocean, under which Japan provides free fuel to warjets and ships of US-led forces.

Abe quit this month, citing opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa’s refusal to meet him to discuss extending the mission, although he later said he resigned due to poor health.

Fukuda has also pledged to extend the mission, which expires November 1 without passage of further legislation, saying that Japan, the world’s second largest economy, needed to contribute to international security.

“I will make efforts to make it possible to continue the mission, although the parliamentary situation is severe,” Fukuda told US President George W. Bush in a telephone call Wednesday, according to the premier’s office.

Ambassadors or senior diplomats from 11 nations met Thursday at the Pakistani ambassador’s residence and issued a joint statement praising Japan’s “unique and vital contribution” to the “war on terrorism.”

“The members of the coalition acknowledge and greatly appreciate Japan’s support in this regard and hope that Japan will continue its important contribution,” a joint statement said.

The envoys who attended the talks included US Ambassador Thomas Schieffer, who earlier met but failed to persuade Ozawa, the main opposition leader, to extend the naval mission.

Besides the United States and Pakistan, the joint appeal was also signed by envoys from Afghanistan, Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and New Zealand.

Ozawa, famed for his political acumen, has vowed to scuttle Fukuda’s agenda and press him to dissolve the more powerful lower house for a general election.

But opinion polls Thursday found that more than half of voters supported Fukuda’s cabinet, double the support for Abe’s government before he resigned.

The best-selling Yomiuri Shimbun put the Fukuda cabinet’s support at 58 percent.

The newspaper, which surveyed 1,557 households by telephone Tuesday and Wednesday, showed 47 percent of voters backed extending the mission against 40 percent who disapproved.

It reversed the results of the paper’s personal-interview survey on September 8 and 9, which showed 39 percent opposition to the mission against 29 percent approval.

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