Yasuo Fukuda new Japan Prime Minister

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Tokyo, Sep 25: Japan's Yasuo Fukuda will be selected as the new prime minister today, then will form a cabinet that must confront a resurgent opposition keen to force an early election.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) chose Fukuda, a 71-year-old seasoned moderate, as its leader on Sunday to revive party fortunes after a disastrous year of scandals and election defeat under Shinzo Abe, who resigned abruptly on September 12.

Fukuda, a proponent of warmer ties with Japan's Asian neighbours, will be voted in as prime minister by parliament's lower house, where the ruling camp has a huge majority.

In a sign of the battles ahead, the opposition-controlled upper house was expected to vote for Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, but the vote by the more powerful lower chamber takes precedence.

The seemingly bland but sometimes testy Fukuda will become the oldest new prime minister since Kiichi Miyazawa assumed the office in 1991 at the age of 72, and the first son of a premier to hold the post.

Japanese media have reported that Fukuda will likely retain most ministers -- including Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga -- from Abe's cabinet, which was reshuffled just last month in an attempt by the outgoing premier to maintain his grip on power.

But there was speculation that former Foreign Minister Taro Aso might get a plum post after the hawkish, outspoken lawmaker did better than expected in the party leadership race.

Fukuda yesterday tapped faction leaders who had backed his bid for the top job as his party lieutenants, prompting criticism from the opposition and some media for relying on old-style factional dynamics and cronyism in his personnel decisions.

''It can't be helped if the line-up comprising veterans and giving consideration to intra-party balance comes under criticism as being a 'revival of the old LDP','' the liberal Mainichi Shimbun said in an editorial today.

Battles Ahead

Looming large among the battles for Fukuda is one over extending beyond November 1 a Japanese naval mission in support of US-led operations that opposition parties do not favour.

The opposition Democrats and their small allies won a majority in a July upper house election and can delay legislation, including a bill to extend the mission to refuel coalition ships in the Indian Ocean that close ally Washington is anxious to see continued.

Fukuda will also have to balance calls to pay more heed to regions and sectors left behind by reforms begun under Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, with the need to rein in spending because of Japan's huge public debt and to find ways to fix social welfare creaking under the weight of a fast-ageing population.

He has called for talks with the opposition on the naval mission and other policy matters, but Democratic Party leader Ozawa -- a former LDP lawmaker who bolted the party in 1993 -- seems bent on a showdown that could spark a lower house poll.

No election for the lower chamber need be held until late 2009, but many expect one sooner, possibly after the national budget is enacted in March 2008.


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