- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2008

TOKYO | A quick-smiling former Olympic skeetshooter with a penchant for tailored suits and manga comic books took power as Japan’s third prime minister in two years Wednesday, vowing to boost a languishing economy.

Lawmakers elected Taro Aso, a 68-year-old conservative who is popular with young people and known for his straight talk, after quelling an attempt by the upper house to install a rival as prime minister.

In his first news conference as prime minister, he also vowed to rescue the ruling party from disaster in parliamentary elections. He stacked his Cabinet with fellow right-leaning veterans and pledged to go head to head with the resurgent opposition.

“I appointed the right people in the right jobs so that we can live up to the people’s expectations,” Mr. Aso said. “We will head into the elections with this lineup and will have a fair fight.”

The former foreign minister succeeded the morose Yasuo Fukuda, who struggled during his year in office with a politically divided parliament and chronically low public support ratings. Mr. Fukuda’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, also lasted barely a year.

Mr. Aso, Buddhist Japan’s first Roman Catholic prime minister, inherits a stumbling economy, an unpopular ruling party and mounting expectations that he will call snap lower-house elections to prove he has a mandate to rule.

The new prime minister indicated that little would change diplomatically. He favors a close relationship with Tokyo’s main benefactor, the United States, and he said he would push to extend a U.S.-backed Japanese counterterrorism mission in the Indian Ocean.

President Bush called Mr. Aso on Wednesday to congratulate him “and to reaffirm the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance,” said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Mr. Aso faces trouble if he continues his record of ruffling feathers at home and abroad with caustic off-the-cuff comments.

He recently drew ire, for instance, by comparing the top opposition party to the Nazis. In 2001, he was forced to apologize after saying the ideal country would be one that attracts “the richest Jewish people.”

Mr. Aso, whose Liberal Democratic Party has ruled Japan nearly all of the past 53 years, stopped short of setting a date for snap elections. By law, he has until next September to call a ballot.

Opposition leaders immediately attacked the new government, accusing Mr. Aso of focusing solely on staying in power rather than putting together coherent policies.

“Everything, including the farce we just saw during the LDP presidency campaign, is geared toward elections,” said Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the top opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan.

Mr. Aso, however, brings an energy and buoyancy to the prime ministership that hasn’t been seen since the wildly popular Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in 2006 after five years in office.

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