TOKYO (AFP) — Japan's ruling party on Monday picked brash conservative Taro Aso to be prime minister as it gears up for early elections, tasking him with steering Asia's largest economy away from recession.
The 68-year-old former foreign minister easily won the party's leadership election and pledged to get to work to revive the economy, saying the government should focus on spurring growth and not balancing the books.
"I felt recession when travelling around the country. I felt certain that the economy was in decline," Aso told a news conference.
"It is my duty to meet people's expectations."
The flamboyant but gaffe-prone politician will become Japan's third prime minister in a year's time. He will formally take over Wednesday from Yasuo Fukuda, a mild-mannered moderate who quit after slumping poll ratings.
Aso has throughout his career come under fire for comments praising parts of Japan's past colonialism, although he credits himself with helping repair historically tense ties with China and South Korea as foreign minister.
Aso, making his fourth bid for the top job, received two-thirds of the votes from members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been in power almost continuously since 1955.
He saluted his rivals and was reportedly planning to give some of them cabinet posts, hoping for party unity as the LDP braces for tough general elections.
"From this moment on, there is no conflict among the five candidates who ran in the election," said Aso, who has charmed the public with his unabashed love of comic books.
His closest rival was Kaoru Yosano, the minister for economic and fiscal policy and a critic of Aso's economic policies, who trailed with 66 of the 527 votes.
Yosano said the climate in Japan, whose economy contracted last quarter by its most in seven years, was "overwhelmingly advantageous" to Aso.
The other candidates included former defence minister Yuriko Koike, who was seeking to become Japan's first female premier. She was third on 46 votes.
Aso enjoyed strong support in struggling rural areas since he has promised to use public money to stimulate the economy , a break from a long push in the LDP for free-market reform, although rivals accused him of putting Japan's ailing finances further at risk.
"It is proven by the past experiences of certain countries," Aso said, "that improving fiscal health cannot be achieved without economic growth."
Aso is thought likely to take advantage of the moment and call snap general elections -- possibly for as early as late October -- in the hope of thwarting an increasingly popular opposition.
Senior opposition leader Naoto Kan immediately went on the offensive, saying Aso was only looking after his own and the LDP's interests.
"I'm worried about having him lead Japan," Kan said on television.
"We've said that we need to hold real discussions on emergency measures to handle Lehman Brothers and oil prices," Kan said, referring to the collapse of the US investment giant that has rocked global markets.
Some pundits doubt the LDP leadership race did much to incite enthusiasm among the general public, as some ruling party lawmakers argued.
"The LDP set fire to its own house and invited people to watch," said Jiro Yamaguchi, a politics professor at Hokkaido University, referring to Fukuda's sudden resignation.
"It has left the impression among people that they are leaving important issues unattended while jostling for power," Yamaguchi said.
Last year, the LDP lost control of the upper house of parliament for the first time, and the Fukuda government's approval rating as of Friday was 15.6 percent.
His popularity plunged after he raised medical costs for the elderly, whose growing number is badly straining public finances.
The opposition has promised to scrap the medical plan. Aso also said Monday he found the scheme too confusing.
In a possible sign he wants to reshape the LDP in his own way, Aso late Monday gave the secretary general's post to Hiroyuki Hosoda, a low-key operator and former government number two.
Aso himself previously served as secretary general, considered a stepping stone to the premiership.
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