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New Japan`s prime minister Fukuda to form new cabinet


Japan`s Yasuo Fukuda was chosen as prime minister by parliament`s lower house on Tuesday, ensuring him the nation`s top job and setting the stage to form a cabinet that must confront a feisty opposition keen to force an election.

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

The bespectacled Fukuda, a proponent of warmer ties with Japan`s Asian neighbors, bowed and smiled after being voted in as prime minister by the lower house, where the ruling camp has a huge majority.

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

"(The LDP) may deceive the people or they may take makeshift measures, but this will not last long," Democratic Party lawmaker Kenji Yamaoka told a news conference. "We feel strongly that a change in administration should take place as soon as possible."

Fukuda, for his part, reiterated that he wanted to discuss policy matters with the Democrats and other opposition parties.

"I want to have dignified discussions with the aim of protecting the people`s livelihoods and the national interests," he told reporters.

The typically 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.

Fukuda said former Foreign Minister Taro Aso, Fukuda`s sole rival in the LDP leadership race, declined an offer of a cabinet post, but added he was still seeking his cooperation.

BATTLES AHEAD

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

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

The 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 find ways to fix social welfare creaking under the weight of a fast-ageing population.

Despite Fukuda`s calls for consultation, Democratic Party leader Ozawa appears 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 government budget is enacted in March 2008.

Abe, who has been hospitalized for a stress-related stomach ailment since the day after he resigned, told a final meeting of his cabinet that it "breaks his heart" to leave office when the country faces so many problems, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano told a news conference.

Abe, who received flowers and applause as he left his official residence, apologized at a news conference on Monday for creating a political vacuum with his shock resignation.

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