TOKYO – Outspoken conservative Taro Aso took power as Japan's prime minister Wednesday, promising "emergency measures" to revive the ailing economy and vowing to keep Tokyo in the fight against global terrorism.
Aso, 68, swept into office after his predecessor, Yasuo Fukuda, abruptly resigned. The former foreign minister is tasked with rejuvenating the failing ruling party ahead of snap elections he could call before the end of the year.
The straight-talking former Olympic skeetshooter gave no hints about when he would call such a ballot, but he stocked his Cabinet with familiar ruling party faces to bolster the image of stability.
Aso, elected earlier in the day by parliament, took a populist stance that could resonate with financially troubled voters in his first news conference after his election.
"We must take care of the economy, including emergency economic measures," Aso said. "The economy has declined over the past year, and we have to think about how to support the people, including small and medium size businesses."
Aso announced no details, but he has backed using fiscal spending to stave off a deep recession, and said he would not consider raising the 5 percent consumption tax for at least three years.
The right-leaning political blueblood — his grandfather was a prominent postwar prime minister — also said he would push to extend Japan's maritime anti-terror mission in the Indian Ocean, despite the opposition's attempts to block it.
"The mission is not for Afghanistan, the U.S. or for Pakistan, but it's a responsibility as a member of the international community to fight against terrorism," Aso said. "We must continue the mission by all means."
Aso, Japan's first Catholic leader, will lead a country wracked by political divisions and spiking concerns over the economy, which has stalled amid the ballooning financial crisis in the United States.
He will soon have to decide whether to call early elections for the lower house to prove his party — which has governed for nearly all the past 53 years — still has a mandate to rule. The LDP controls the powerful lower house, but the opposition rules the upper house.
Such an election would be a major gamble for the party, which is bleeding public support and suffering widespread anger over mismanagement of pension funds and a general dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Elections can be called by the prime minister at any time, but must be held by next September. Aso, however, said he first wanted to pass a supplemental budget in parliament.
Opposition leaders immediately attacked the new government.
"Aso is on the opposite end of the spectrum from regular people, who are making ends meet and face difficulties in their daily lives," said Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima. "He is totally ignoring them and doing his own politics."
Aso's initial Cabinet choices showed he was sticking with like-minded conservatives and allies, rather than trying to strike a new policy direction.
Shoichi Nakagawa, a former economic minister considered to be in the right-wing of the LDP, was named minister of finance. Two years ago, Aso and Nakagawa caused a stir by suggesting Japan should have a debate on whether to acquire nuclear weapons. At the same time, Nakagawa called the U.S. atomic attack on Nagasaki "a crime."
Kaoru Yosano, who lost to Aso in the LDP presidential race, kept his post in charge of economic and fiscal policy. It was unclear how Aso would square his stated policy of boosting fiscal spending with Yosano's concerns about the country's burgeoning budget deficit.
Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba was named agriculture minister. Hirofumi Nakasone, the son of 1980s nationalist Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, is foreign minister.
Jiro Yamaguchi, political scientist at Hokkaido University, said the Cabinet picks reflected Aso's focus on keeping the LDP in power.
"The lineup clearly shows that Aso only cares about the approaching elections, not policies," Yamaguchi said.
Aso has also said that he will continue to place relations with Washington as Japan's top diplomatic priority, while trying to improve ties with neighboring China, whose growing economic and military clout Aso once described as a "major threat."
Aso could face 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."