Vaccine tsar Taro Kono is popular with the public, but needs support from the ruling party’s local members.
Tokyo, Japan – Fumio Kishida is set to become Japan’s next prime minister after securing victory in the race to lead Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but while the ‘old school’ politician might have won his party’s backing, analysts say winning over the public will be far harder.
Kishida, 64, beat the more popular administrative reform and vaccines minister, Taro Kono, in a second-round runoff by 257 votes to 170. The two women in the race, the hard-right Sanae Takaichi and the more liberal Seiko Noda, lost out in the first round of voting.
With the rise of the soft-spoken Hiroshima politician to the top job, the party has opted for the continuity candidate and a low-key leader.
In the words of Corey Wallace, assistant professor at Kanagawa University: “He’s going to be an old-school LDP type of prime minister in the sense that he’s going to try to get on well with everybody in the party.”
In fact, many believe that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, and other right-wing elements within the party will drive the Kishida administration agenda from behind the scenes.
“He desperately needed and seems to have gotten the support of Abe and Aso, who were the strongest power behind the throne when Suga was chosen and was prime minister,” said Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.
In Nakano’s view, the change of prime minister from Yoshihide Suga to Kishida does not amount to any significant alteration of the balance of power within Japanese politics, except that Kishida maintains a “slight edge” over Suga in the sense that he heads his faction within the LDP and is not quite as ineffective a communicator as Suga.
A vote in parliament is expected to confirm Kishida as prime minister on October 4, and the new LDP leader is expected to announce his cabinet shortly afterwards.
He takes over at a challenging time for Japan.
‘Thoroughly loyal to Abe’
The past year has seen a surge of COVID-19 in the country, and Japanese people are increasingly disillusioned with the government’s pandemic response.
Japan is only now turning the corner – a state of emergency in several areas including Tokyo is due to be lifted on Friday after a sharp drop in cases and a surge in vaccinations – but the effect on the economy has been severe.
There are also the perennial foreign policy issues – an increasingly assertive China, stalled denuclearisation talks with a North Korea that is expanding its military arsenal, and a sometimes prickly relationship with South Korea.
While Kishida himself has said that his instincts on foreign policy are relatively dovish, he was foreign minister for the hawkish Shinzo Abe between 2012 and 2017.
Nakano believes that despite the claims of dovishness, Kishida’s more likely to maintain a similar path to his former boss.
“He finally got to the position he coveted thanks to the success of his strategy of being thoroughly loyal to Abe,” Nakano said. “I haven’t seen a single instance in which he showed what he has said to be his true colours.”
To the extent that Kishida has attempted to define his own political identity, it is very much in the tradition of former Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, who led the country between 1960 and 1964. Ikeda downplayed divisive political and diplomatic issues and promoted the “Income Doubling Plan” of the early post-war era.
During his leadership campaign, Kishida highlighted the growing gap between rich and poor in Japanese society and promised to try and address the disparities with a “new form of capitalism”.
“Without distribution of wealth there won’t be a rise in consumption and demand,” Kishida explained at a press conference earlier this month. “There won’t be further growth if distribution of wealth is lost.”
Should Kishida confound the low expectations and gain his own political leverage, it may be this vision that ultimately comes to define his time in office.
“There’s in his political blood that he is willing to try to fix or address inequities or inequalities in Japanese society to try to ensure that there are not these huge conflicts or divisions,” said Wallace.
Kishida won the party poll by scooping up the legislators’ voters, while Kono won the support of the party rank-and-file.
Seen as a ‘maverick’ by the more traditional elements of the party, Kono is notably more popular with the Japanese public.
In his acceptance speech on Thursday, Kishida called on the party to prepare for the looming elections. The lower house poll has to be held by November 28 with elections for the upper house, the House of Councillors, in July 2022.
“Our national crisis continues,” he said. “We need to keeping working hard on the coronavirus response with strong determination, and we need to compile tens of trillions of yen of stimulus package by the end of the year.”
Kanagawa University’s Wallace says while Kishida would be a “suboptimal candidate for the LDP”, the party was still likely to be able to preserve its majority, even if it might lose several dozen seats, partly because the opposition parties are in disarray.
“The bigger danger for Kishida in terms of his longevity is the House of Councillors election next year,” he said.
By that time, Kishida will be well past his honeymoon period in office and forced to run on his record of leadership in a country where prime ministers since 2006 – with the notable exception of Shinzo Abe – have managed to survive only for a year or two in office.
Timothy Langley, president of the Tokyo-based public affairs consultancy Langley Esquire, believes Kishida is likely to head a lacklustre administration, characterised by a vacillating, indecisive, and “centre of the road” posture.
Like other analysts, he expects Kishida to become another victim of the churn, particularly as the party power-brokers chose to deny the public its clear favourite – Taro Kono.
This means that the Kishida administration may find little public tolerance for mistakes.
“Should there be some kind of stumble, I think the revenge of the population will come up pretty hard,” Langley said.
He adds, “In elections he was never very successful. He was never able to bring home the bacon.”