Fukuda Elected Japan's Prime Minister

The Associated Press
Wednesday, September 26, 2007; 12:12 AM

TOKYO -- Yasuo Fukuda took office as Japan's prime minister Wednesday, promising to use his skills as a negotiator to win approval for extending Tokyo's contentious mission in support of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The 71-year-old, who studied backroom politics at the knee of his prime minister father, cast himself as the steady hand Japan needs after the scandal-scarred one-year term of his youthful predecessor Shinzo Abe, who abruptly resigned two weeks ago.

"There is room for discussion with our opponents, if they are willing to engage with us," Fukuda said Tuesday in his first news conference after winning election in parliament. "I believe the government and all parties can come together to the negotiating table."

After being officially sworn in at a palace ceremony Wednesday, Fukuda and his ministers held their first Cabinet meeting to map out their political agenda in parliament.

Fukuda, a proven survivor who became the nation's longest-serving chief Cabinet secretary in 2000-2004, faces daunting challenges at the helm of the world's second-largest economy: a parliament split by opposition control of the upper house and rock-bottom public support for the longtime ruling party.

One glaring sign of the troubles ahead was his election Tuesday. While easily triumphing in parliament's powerful lower house, Fukuda was defeated in the upper house, which voted for opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa. It was only because of a law that favors the lower house that Fukuda was named premier.

It was the first time that parliament had split in a vote for prime minister since 1998, and only the fourth time since World War II.

Ozawa, head of the Democratic Party of Japan, made clear, however, that he was interested in wresting power from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, not helping Fukuda achieve his agenda. The opposition is pushing for snap elections for the lower house.

"They are the ones that caused social disparity and distortion," Ozawa said of the ruling party, referring to the widening gap between rich and poor. "We want to bring an end to such government as soon as possible."

In an attempt to make the transition as seamless as possible, Fukuda reinstalled the Cabinet almost en masse, merely shifting some members among ministries.

But his policy priorities were markedly different from Abe's nationalist agenda, which included revision of the pacifist constitution to give more freedom to the military, expansion of patriotic education, and an unapologetic view of Japan's actions before and during World War II.

Instead, Fukuda _ who favors warm relations with the rest of Asia _ struck a populist pose, vowing to tackle the government's troubling loss of millions of pension records, provide assistance to rural areas left behind in the economic recovery and deal with the fallout from the rapid aging of society.

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