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Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008
Aso gets quick start, names new Cabinet
Conservative takes helm as Japan braces for a pivotal snap election
By MASAMI ITO and KAZUAKI NAGATA
Hawkish Liberal Democratic Party President Taro Aso was elected prime minister Wednesday and immediately formed his new Cabinet.
Close allies and rivals alike were appointed to key positions in an apparent bid to build unity ahead of a highly anticipated early general election.
"With these Cabinet members, we will fight through the (next) election," Aso said at his first news conference as prime minister.
The new lineup, however, is short on high-profile politicians who can draw the votes necessary to drastically boost the Cabinet's standing in the opinion polls — a problem that plagued the crew of his moderate predecessor, Yasuo Fukuda, the second leader to resign in two years.
Former LDP policy chief Shoichi Nakagawa, a close ally of Aso who also is a right-leaning conservative, was named both finance minister and financial services minister in a double appointment.
Economic and fiscal policy minister Kaoru Yosano kept that post, while former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba was given the post of agriculture minister. Both ran against Aso in the LDP election.
Adding youth to the lineup was 34-year-old Yuko Obuchi, daughter of the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, as minister in charge of tackling the birthrate problem.
Obuchi is now the youngest Cabinet minister in postwar history.
Taking the post of chief Cabinet secretary — the prime minister's top assistant and government spokesman — is former education minister Takeo Kawamura. Kawamura, however, isn't used to dealing with the media spotlight, and some observers say he is too low-profile to fill the position at a time when an election is looming.
The task of announcing the new lineup usually falls to the chief Cabinet secretary, but Aso took the podium at the prime minister's office himself to make the announcement, kicking off what was seen as a new media campaign to boost his exposure before the election.
Former education minister Hirofumi Nakasone, son of powerful former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, was named foreign minister.
Seiko Noda, 48, who became the youngest Cabinet member when she was appointed posts and telecommunications minister at age 37, remained consumer affairs minister.
Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe and Environment Minister Tetsuo Saito of New Komeito also returned.
The post of education minister went to Lower House member Ryu Shionoya.
"The power to carry out various policies is solely in the hands of the ruling coalition, — absolutely not the Democratic Party of Japan," Aso told his fellow party members in the afternoon before he was officially selected prime minister by the Diet.
"We will definitely win the general election and achieve our policies, and all of the (LDP) Diet members here today have the responsibility and obligation to be ready to answer to the people's trust," he said.
The DPJ, the largest opposition force, is also gearing up for the political battle expected to be waged within the next couple of months. Ozawa made clear his strong intention to win the next general election, referring to the LDP as "the enemy."
"We are at the start of the final battle — the Lower House general election," Ozawa told his party Wednesday. "Let's carry the slogan that this will be the autumn that (the DPJ) achieves a change in power, that this will be the autumn that (the DPJ) seizes government power — and turn it into reality."
Because of the deadlock in the Diet, in which opposition parties control the Upper House, the vote on the nation's leader was also divided. The Lower House, led by the ruling LDP-New Komeito coalition, voted Aso in as prime minister, while the Upper House voted for DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa.
Just like last year when Fukuda was chosen as prime minister, the two chambers failed to reach an agreement. In accordance with the Constitution, the will of the Lower House prevailed.
Azuma Koshiishi, chairman of the DPJ's Upper House caucus, reminded reporters that the most recent national election was the 2007 Upper House election, in which the DPJ scored a landslide victory and led to the divided Diet.
"The public's will is reflected by the Upper House," Koshiishi said. "The Upper House chose Ozawa as prime minister and I believe that is the public's will."
Aso, who ran against four other candidates in the LDP presidential election, declared Monday that the rivalry among them ended right then.
True to his words, Aso appointed former policy chief Nobuteru Ishihara as deputy LDP secretary general.
But former Defense Minister Yuriko Koike, the first female candidate in the LDP presidential election, was not included in the Cabinet.
She reportedly said last week that she would turn down any posts offered to her.
The Fukuda Cabinet resigned en masse in the morning.
Aso becomes the third prime minister since the last Lower House election, when the ruling coalition of the LDP and New Komeito secured a two-thirds majority in September 2005 under the popular Junichiro Koizumi.
An election does not have to be held until next September, when the current terms of Lower House members expire.
But there is a growing prospect that Aso will call an election in the coming months to take advantage of any boost in public support for the new administration.
Information from Kyodo added