Koizumi Ends 5-Year Term As Japanese PM

The Associated Press
Monday, September 25, 2006; 11:01 PM

TOKYO -- Five years after taking office for what many analysts had expected to be a short-lived term, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said good-bye to his followers Tuesday and prepared to turn over power to his protege and long-time spokesman, Shinzo Abe.

The transition ends the tenure of one Japan's longest-serving and most popular prime ministers, a term that saw both a gradual recovery of the nation's economy and a rare infusion of lightheartedness _ Koizumi waltzing with actor Richard Gere, for example, or serenading U.S. President George W. Bush with an Elvis Presley song at the late singer's Graceland mansion.

Koizumi also, however, left a legacy of discord with neighbors China and South Korea over territorial disputes and his repeated visits to a memorial to Japan's fallen soldiers, including convicted World War II war criminals.

In his final statement, Koizumi stressed the impact of his economic reform program and efforts to trim government spending.

"When I first came to office, Japan's economy was in stagnation and there was a prevalence of pessimistic views," he said. "Today there is a willingness to challenge the new times and a confidence that we can succeed if we try. The bud of reform is beginning to grow into a big tree."

He left his official residence Tuesday to the ringing applause of 150 staff members and senior party leaders, including Abe.

Smiling and relaxed, Koizumi waved to crowd and clutched a bouquet of red and pink roses.

"Thank you," he said.

Koizumi chose the time for his departure and appeared to have no regrets.

He had for several months stressed that he had no intention of seeking re-election when his term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party president ended Sept. 30. He can also be fairly confident that his reforms and basic foreign policy goals will be followed up by Abe, who served as the top spokesman for the Koizumi Cabinet before winning election as party president last week.

Koizumi said he was particularly proud to have maintained high levels of public support. With vows to overhaul the economy and the stagnant ruling party, he started off with record-high approval ratings of about 90 percent. Though in more recent polls that had fallen significantly, to around the 50 percent level, they remained relatively high.

"The economy recovered and people now have the confidence that they can succeed if they try," he said in his parting statement. "I think that was good, because I had the support of the public."

© 2006 The Associated Press