Abe elected Japan's new prime minister

Posted in Japan | 26-Sep-06 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Japan's newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

TOKYO Shinzo Abe, a proponent of a tight alliance with the United States and a more assertive military, won election as Japan's new prime minister Tuesday, scoring comfortable majorities in both houses.

Abe won 339 votes out of 475 counted in the powerful lower house, and 136 ballots out of 240 in the upper house, reflecting the dominance of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Parliament.

Abe, at 52 the youngest, postwar, Japanese prime minister, has pushed for a continued close relationship with the United States, revision of the pacifist constitution, a more robust Japanese foreign policy, and patriotic teaching in public schools.

"It's the beginning of the new era under Abe," the ruling party secretary general, Hidenao Nakagawa, told the national broadcaster NHK. "I hope those who voted for Abe will join hands to achieve our political goals."

Koizumi's cabinet resigned en masse Tuesday morning as a procedural move to pave the way for the new government. Following the parliamentary vote, Abe was to name his Cabinet picks and present himself before Emperor Akihito.

Koizumi left the Prime Minister's Office with a bouquet of flowers in his hands as supporters cheered, ending more than five years in office marked by far-reaching changes such as passage of legislation to privatize the postal service.

"There is no end to reform," Koizumi said in a parting statement. "I hope that the public will work with the new prime minister to believe in Japan's future and continue the reform with courage and hope."

Abe signaled the primary directions of his government on Monday by choosing a pro-growth fiscal conservative and a fellow nationalist Cabinet minister to two top posts in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Hidenao Nakagawa - considered one of Abe's closest aides - was chosen as secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Nakagawa backs better relations with China, cuts in budget spending and has argued against raising taxes.

Abe also tapped a foreign policy hawk, Shoichi Nakagawa, to head the party's policy research council. He supports a hard line on North Korea, history textbooks that play down Japanese wartime atrocities, and visits to Yasukuni war shrine.

News reports said Foreign Minister Taro Aso, 66, who came second in last week's LDP leadership race, was expected to get a key Cabinet post, possibly staying on in his current position. Kyodo News agency said Senior Vice Foreign Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki, 55, could become the next chief cabinet secretary, succeeding Abe.

Nobutaka Machimura, 61, a former foreign minister, was also mentioned in reports as a possible education minister, a post he held most recently in 2001. The conservative was foreign minister under Koizumi until a Cabinet reshuffling last fall.

Abe was also reportedly planning to create several new cabinet portfolios - solving North Korea's abductions of Japanese citizens, retraining laid-off workers and others, technological innovation, and regional economic revitalization.

Abe will take office as momentum builds for repairing Tokyo's frayed ties with its neighbors, China and South Korea.

Japan and China held vice-ministerial talks this week and Abe's aides say they are working behind the scenes to quickly set up a meeting with the Chinese president, Hu Jintao - the first meeting between Japanese and Chinese leaders since April 2005.

Aso met Monday with the Chinese vice foreign minister, Dai Bingguo, in Tokyo on Monday. The two agreed relations between Japan and China are "at an important period," the Foreign Ministry said.

Japan and China are at odds over interpretations of wartime history, exploitation of maritime resources, and island territories.

Hu has refused to meet with Koizumi since last year over his visits to the Yasukuni war shrine, which honors war criminals among Japan's war dead and is considered by critics to be a glorification of Tokyo's past militarism.

Abe takes office with relatively little experience in government. He worked as an aide to his politician father Shintaro Abe, and then was elected to parliament in 1993, but was little known until he took the lead in 2002 in negotiating the release of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea.

Koizumi gave Abe his first Cabinet posting just last year, naming him to the high-profile position of chief cabinet secretary. The job gave Abe - Koizumi's first choice to succeed him - daily exposure to the public.