Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Photo: AFP / Yomiuri / Ryohei Moriya

TOKYO – Former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, 64, is set to become Japan’s next prime minister after winning the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Wednesday.

The centrist Kishida defeated Taro Kono, the widely fancied administrative reform minister, in a second-stage run-off after two other candidates – both female – were eliminated in the first stage of the race.

The party leadership plebiscite was necessitated after current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, suffering from critically low ratings, announced his intention on September 3 to step down from the party’s headship.  

He is expected to become prime minister after a special session of the Diet on October 4. The LDP, together with its coalition partner Komeito, now holds a majority in both houses of the Diet. Kishida’s first task will be to rally the party as a national election for the lower house of the Diet must take place, by law, by November 28.

But LDP sources have suggested that the lower chamber will be dissolved in mid-October, and an election held in the first half of November. 

The internal rallying process may not be smooth given the bruising intra-party leadership race. Ironically – shortly before winning Wednesday’s leadership race – Kishida told his close associates that he did not want the top job anymore.

The haplessness of outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga necessitated Wednesday’s battle for the headship of the LDP. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun / Masanori Genko

A tense race

Kishida’s apparent buyer’s remorse stems from two factors. One is the range of economic challenges bearing down upon Japan, from a dangerous-looking stock market bubble and massive national debt to the need for real reform.

The second is the struggles he will face within his own party – notably from his former mentor, ex-prime minister Shinzo Abe, who remains a key backdoor power player.

During the election campaign, Kishida said he might consider reinvestigations of numerous allegations of corruption against Abe. After Kishida’s remarks, Abe pushed forward ultra-rightist Sanae Takaichi, a former communications ministry, as a candidate.

Her presence, and that of a center-left candidate, Seiko Noda, a former gender equality minister, made Wednesday’s party plebiscite a four-horse race.

In the first stage of Wednesday’s LDP election, which divided votes equally between sitting Diet members and the party’s regional blocs, Kishida and Kono were separated by only one vote. But because none of the candidates had earned a clear majority, a run-off between the top two was mandated.

In public opinion polls, Kono had been the most favored to be prime minister, and there were hopes that he could shake up the LDP’s establishment. The establishment clearly did not want to be shaken.

As had been the case with Suga’s selection a year earlier, factional politics in the national party, and among sitting lawmakers, determined the winner.

Among 427 valid votes in the run-off, Kishida won with 257. Kono only collected 170, although with 39 votes from the regional block, compared to single-digit numbers for Kishida, it’s clear that Kono was the rank-and-file choice. 

Taro Kono was preferred by both the electorate and the foreign commentariat. Photo: AFP / Ryotaro Kono / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Meet Japan’s new leader

On the surface, Kishida looks like a safe pair of hands. In addition to his experience as a foreign minister, he has a wonkish side: he was the former chief of the LDP’s policy council.

What he lacks in charisma, he makes up for in stability. Kishida was the first candidate to publicly announce he would run for the party’s leadership. He is, like Abe, a third-generation lawmaker. He served as foreign minister for four consecutive years, from 2012-2017 – a record in post-war Japan.

Kishida was born into a Tokyo political family but hails from Hiroshima, and welcomed then-US president Barack Obama on his visit to that prefecture.

He campaigned on a progressive platform, not shirking criticism of “Abenomics,” the loose monetary policy of Suga and Abe, which failed to revive the economy and increased wealth disparity.

He has vowed to focus on rebuilding the economy and has proposed creating a US$90 billion fund in the biology, science and technology sectors as a jump-start.  

Kishida has also been critical of the government’s haphazard anti-pandemic measures. Japan has suffered 17,574 Covid-19 deaths, by far the highest in East Asia after more populated China. He has proposed immediately creating Covid-19-dedicated hospitals throughout the country, so no one dies at home waiting for treatment.

However, in recent weeks, as the national vaccination program has sped up, Japan’s number of new patients has declined and the government is set to lift the state of emergency nationwide at the end of the month. 

That could provide a feel-good boon for Kishida early in his term, and for the party at the polls in November.

Kyushu University students in Fukuoka City wear face masks, keep social distance and check their body temperatures amid persistent pandemic fears. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Kishida, like many LDP politicians, is hawkish on defense. He has said that Japan should possess the ability to attack enemy bases, including enemy missile launch sites, and should consider laws that would enable their proactive destruction.

In this sense, North Korea may have generated a few votes in his favor by test-firing the latest in a long, long line of ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on Tuesday morning.

He is seen as lukewarm on revising Japan’s pacifist constitution but has also suggested that Taiwan – which has, to China’s indignation, become a topic of discussion among some high-profile LDP members in recent months – could become a future diplomatic problem.

Kishida has been non-committal – or rather, diplomatic – on the subject of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. The famous, or infamous, Shinto shrine houses the spirits of Japan’s millions of war dead – including several Class A war criminals.

Visits to the shrine by prominent politicians generate fury in China and South Korea as the visits suggest that Japan does not regret its brutal past and is intent on revising history.

At a time when much of Japan has grown fatigued by overseas criticism, for the country’s far-right and its powerful right-wing lobby,Nippon Kaigi, a visit to the shrine is a litmus test of a politician’s political faith.

Despite his foreign ministerial chops, Kishida was never as popular among the foreign commentariat as the second runner.

Kono is – highly unusually for a Japanese politician – fluent in English. An outspoken critic of Japan’s nuclear industry, he is also the only candidate to have a substantial online presence. He has more than 2.4 million followers on Twitter, with another 50,000 on his English account.

Kono had said explicitly that he would not make the Yasukuni pilgrimage. Conversely, hard rightist Takaichi – who was backed by Abe – made it sound as if that would be the first thing she would do if she won office.

Now that Kishida has the deal sewn up, a key question is how far right he will have to swing to appease the far right-wing of the party. This is particularly so as he has made an enemy of Abe.

Healing the party

A statement Kishida made on September 2 on TBS television landed him in hot water. He was asked whether there should be a further inquiry into the falsification of public documents in the Moritomo Gakuen scandal which deeply involved not only Abe, but also current Finance Minister Aso Taro, another key LDP kingmaker.

The two are suspected of bending government policy and pressuring officials to favor a right-wing school operator, and friend, in a land purchase in Osaka in 2017. The Ministry of Finance took more than $7 million off the price tag.

Government officials then altered and forged documents to cover up Abe’s and Aso’s involvement. Abe’s wife Akie was also involved with Moritomo Gakuen, an operator of ultraconservative schools that bought the land.

An official involved in the cover-up, Toshio Akagi, committed suicide after being pressured to rewrite the documents and left behind a tell-all memo

Kishida, on television, responded, “we should continue to explain what happened until the public is convinced” that the truth has been told.

None of the other three candidates who were also asked to weigh in on whether Abe’s past scandals should be reinvestigated replied, and Kono refused to accept questions when they were sent to him.

Kishida has made an enemy of ex-prime minister and current power broker Shinzo Abe. Photo: AFP / Kunihiko Miura / The Yomiuri Shimbun

This means that Kishida comes to power with the knowledge that the power-broking Abe, once his mentor, is now aligned against him.

He will have some tricky politicking ahead. Kishida has to make concessions to Kono’s and Takaichi’s supporters, and has to decide where to place Kono – and possibly the other two candidates – in his cabinet. On top of that, he must lead the LDP in general elections next month.

LDP support is uncomfortably low due to its mishandling of the pandemic, rising unemployment and bankruptcies, and Suga’s general haplessness.

Against this background, Kishida is playing the reluctant leader. He reportedly told associates: “I don’t want to win the role of prime minister … right now.”

Of course, that is political talk. It is no secret that Kishida has long held the ambition of leading Japan.

But being the top leader of the LDP requires so much subterfuge after the brutal internal battles in the party elections, it is little wonder he’s feeling gun-shy – even on the day of his victory.