Updated: September 29, 2021 08:29 AM GMT
Outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks at the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election in Tokyo on Sept. 29. (Photo: AFP)
Japan's ruling party today elected former foreign minister Fumio Kishida its new leader, setting him on course to become the next prime minister of the world's third-largest economy.
The soft-spoken centrist defeated popular vaccine chief Taro Kono in an unusually close race to succeed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is stepping down after just a year in office.
Kishida, 64, will be confirmed as the new premier in a vote in parliament on Oct. 4 and will then lead the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) into general elections that must happen by November.
Speaking after his win, he called on members to "show the public that the LDP has been reborn and appeal for their support."
The scion of a political family from Hiroshima, Kishida has long targeted the prime minister's office and ran unsuccessfully for party leader last year, losing out to Suga.
He became the first candidate to step into the race this time around and ran on a platform of pandemic stimulus, touting himself as a listener who carried a suggestion box to events to receive proposals from citizens.
Kishida's low-key persona has at times been described as a lack of charisma, and his policy ideas suggest more continuity than change
"My skill is to really listen to people," he said after his win. "I'm determined to make efforts with everyone for an open LDP and a bright future for Japan."
The race was a tight one, with Kishida edging Kono by just a single vote in the first round of voting by LDP members and parliamentarians before taking the second round with 257 votes to Kono's 170.
Two other candidates, hawkish right-winger Sanae Takaichi and feminist former gender equality minister Seiko Noda, did not advance beyond the first-round vote.
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.
Kishida's 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 won more support within the party, who shied away from Kono's reforming and direct style.
"The powers within Jinminto (LDP) have decided for a variety of reasons that Kishida is a better bet for stability and longevity. They've made this bet before," said Brad Glosserman, a senior adviser to the Pacific Forum.
For Kishida, "the expectations are low, which could be good ... because if you expect little of someone it is easy to surprise," he told AFP.
In his victory speech, Kishida pledged to unleash economic relief measures worth tens of trillions of yen, which will be key to shoring up support before he leads the LDP into general elections.
The party is expected to retain its parliamentary majority but could lose some seats over public discontent with the government's handling of the pandemic.
What he really, really stands for is a little bit unclear ... nothing really stands out as Kishida's personal hobbyhorse issue
Generally, Kishida is expected to hew to the government's existing path on defense, foreign and economic policy.
"Kishida shares the same policy core as Suga and [predecessor Shinzo] Abe," said Corey Wallace, an assistant professor at Kanagawa University who focuses on Japanese politics.
"What he really, really stands for is a little bit unclear ... nothing really stands out as Kishida's personal hobbyhorse issue."
Kishida has called for greater economic equality, urging a "politics of generosity", but stopped short of suggesting hiking taxes.
And despite his liberal reputation, he was notably more reticent than Kono on hot-button issues like legalising gay marriage or allowing married couples to have different surnames.
He faces a series of immediate challenges, including post-pandemic economic recovery and confronting threats from North Korea and China, as well as questions about longevity, with Suga's one-year term reviving memories of a period where Japan shuffled through new premiers almost annually.
….as we enter the last months of 2021, we are asking readers like you to help us keep UCA News free.
For the last 40 years, UCA News has remained the most trusted and independent Catholic news and information service from Asia. Every week, we publish nearly 100 news reports, feature stories, commentaries, podcasts and video broadcasts that are exclusive and in-depth, and developed from a view of the world and the Church through informed Catholic eyes.
Our journalistic standards are as high as any in the quality press; our focus is particularly on a fast-growing part of the world - Asia - where, in some countries the Church is growing faster than pastoral resources can respond to – South Korea, Vietnam and India to name just three.
And UCA News has the advantage of having in its ranks local reporters who cover 23 countries in south, southeast, and east Asia. We report the stories of local people and their experiences in a way that Western news outlets simply don’t have the resources to reach. And we report on the emerging life of new Churches in old lands where being a Catholic can at times be very dangerous.
With dwindling support from funding partners in Europe and the USA, we need to call on the support of those who benefit from our work.