Japan elects Fumio Kishida as next Prime Minister

Kishida, the scion of a political family from Hiroshima, has long targeted the top job and ran unsuccessfully last year, losing out to Suga
Last Updated 29 September 2021, 10:18 IST

Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Wednesday anointed former foreign minister Fumio Kishida as its next leader in a victory for the party's establishment that virtually ensures he will become prime minister within days.

Although he enjoys only moderate popular support, Kishida was backed by some of the party's heavyweights, allowing him to stop the momentum of rising star Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the coronavirus vaccine roll-out.

It was not clear if Kishida's bland image could spell problems for the LDP in a general election due by Nov. 28. Nevertheless, he focused on populist issues — such as the need to forge a new kind of capitalism and ease divisions of wealth — in his first news conference.

"We will strive to achieve economic growth and distribution," of wealth, he said, adding there was no way to achieve growth without distributing wealth.

Kishida, who succeeds unpopular Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga who did not seek re-election as party leader after just one year in office, is almost certain to become premier at a parliamentary session on Monday because of the LDP's majority in the lower house.

He is expected to form a new cabinet and reshuffle the LDP executive in early October.

Media, quoting LDP executives, reported that the lower chamber will likely be dissolved in mid-October with an election on either Nov. 7 or Nov. 14.

Establishment win

"A win for the establishment. Kishida stands for stability, for not rocking the boat and most importantly, doing what elite technocrats tell him to do," Jesper Koll, expert director at Monex Group.

Kono, a fluent English speaker with a large following on Twitter known for being outspoken, has long been seen as something of a maverick, and was not regarded as the top choice of some of the party's powerbrokers.

Two female contenders, Sanae Takaichi, 60, and Seiko Noda, 61, dropped out after the first round.

Kishida's victory is unlikely to trigger a huge shift in policies as Japan seeks to cope with an assertive China and revive an economy hit by the pandemic.

He shares a broad consensus on the need to boost Japan's defences and strengthen security ties with the United States and other partners including the QUAD grouping of Japan, the United States, Australia and India, while preserving vital economic ties with China.

Specifically, Kishida wants to beef up Japan's coast guard and backs passing a resolution condemning China's treatment of members of the Uyghur minority. He wants to appoint a prime ministerial aide to monitor their human rights situation.

He has proposed a spending package of more than ¥30 trillion, adding that Japan likely would not raise a sales tax rate from 10 per cent "for about a decade".

He has stressed the need to distribute more wealth to households, in contrast to the focus of Abe's "Abenomics" policies on boosting corporate profits in the hope benefits trickle down to wage-earners.

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A former LDP policy chief, Kishida sought to capitalise on public discontent over Suga's response to the pandemic, which has seen his government's approval ratings slump to record lows.

His low-key persona has at times been described as a lack of charisma, and his policy ideas suggest more continuity than change.

But in the end, that appeared to win over more support from the LDP rank-and-file, who shied away from Kono's reforming and direct style.

"Kishida has definitely performed way better than people expected him to," said Corey Wallace, an assistant professor at Kanagawa University who focuses on Japanese politics.

"He was trying to be all things to all people. But compared to previous times he has run or indicated to run, he had a message," he told AFP.

Kishida is seen as a safe pair of hands who is likely to broadly continue the policies of the Suga government, and has not signalled plans for any radical shifts on defence, foreign or economic policy.

He has called for a "politics of generosity" and said he wants to move away from the neo-liberal economic policies that have dominated in Japan.

Despite his liberal reputation however, Kishida was notably more reticent than his chief rival Kono on hot-button issues like legalising gay marriage or allowing married couples to have different surnames.

He faces an immediate roster of difficult issues, including steering a post-pandemic economic recovery and confronting threats from North Korea and China.

Kishida will also face questions about longevity, with Suga's one-year term reviving memories of a period where Japan shuffled through new premiers almost annually.

That era came to an end with Suga's predecessor Shinzo Abe, who became Japan's longest-serving prime minister. Abe stepped down due to health concerns after more than seven years in the job.

(Published 29 September 2021, 06:51 IST)

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