It is a win that wiped away the pain of defeat from a year ago.
Fumio Kishida, who was once former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s handpicked successor, won the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election Wednesday, becoming the presumptive successor to Yoshihide Suga as the nation’s leader.
With no candidates obtaining a majority in the first round, the runoff was a head-to-head race between first-place Kishida and second-place Taro Kono, the vaccine czar and No. 1 choice for prime minister in public opinion polls.
In the runoff, Kishida — who garnered 256 votes in the first round — defeated Kono by 257 votes to 170.
The new LDP president ran against Suga in last year’s election to choose Abe’s replacement. At that time, Abe threw his weight behind Suga, even though he had long considered Kishida to be a worthy successor. This time around, the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history actively promoted Sanae Takaichi, whose conservative ideology aligns with his.
Although his profile has increased through party leadership bids, Kishida's name recognition is still limited, making it uncertain whether the former foreign minister can capture the public’s imagination as LDP leader ahead of a general election slated to be held by November.
“As each leadership contest candidate has listened to people’s voices and has engaged in constructive debates on policies, I believe we have been able to show that the LDP is a party of the people that faces the public and is free and open-minded,” Kishida said after winning the runoff.
“We must present the changed LDP to the people and appeal to them for their support. The presidential election is over. … As a united LDP, let’s all work together for the Lower House election and (next year’s) Upper House election.”
Both the party and the public will now begin scrutinizing Kishida’s aptitude as a trustworthy leader capable of maintaining a majority in the Lower House and instilling a sense of political stability at a time when the nation is wrestling with the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing security threats from North Korea and China.
Later on Wednesday, Kishida said he would use Thursday to pick party executives, including the secretary-general, policy chief and executive board leader.
An extraordinary Diet session will be convened Monday, at which Kishida will be officially nominated to take over the Prime Minister’s Office. The LDP has a majority in the Lower House, essentially guaranteeing that he will become prime minister.
Afterward, he will immediately form a Cabinet and appoint ministers.
On Wednesday, he vowed to continue strengthening the coronavirus response and to compile an economic stimulus package worth trillions of yen, as Japan “continues to face a crisis.” Raising declining birthrates and the free and open Indo-Pacific policy as urgent issues, Kishida asked for support from his fellow lawmakers and rank-and-file members.
“One of Fumio Kishida's good traits is listening carefully to what others have to say,” the winning candidate said. “I am determined to work together with all of you to create an open LDP and a bright future for Japan.”
In the first round of voting Wednesday, 762 votes — 380 from LDP lawmakers and 382 from rank-and-file members — were up for grabs. The runoff was contested with votes from 380 lawmakers and 47 prefectural representatives.
In the first round, Kishida earned 256 votes in total, composed of 146 lawmaker votes and 110 rank-and-file votes. Kono earned 255 votes: 86 from lawmakers and 169 from the rank and file.
Takaichi secured the backing of 114 lawmakers in the initial round, surprising many observers by finishing ahead of Kono among LDP politicians.
The voting pattern among LDP lawmakers underscored their deep-seated skepticism toward Kono, with Diet members essentially casting their ballot for anyone but the vaccine chief even though he is highly popular with both the public and the LDP’s rank and file. Kono captured first place in the number of votes from grassroots members in more than two dozen prefectures, according to Jiji Press.
Nevertheless, Kono has received pushback, especially from more conservative members within the party, over what is seen as opportunistic flip-flops on critical issues such as nuclear power and the debates surrounding imperial succession. Kono is perceived as a maverick and oftentimes too blunt by his colleagues, stoking their antipathy toward him.
During the campaign, Kono’s comment in favor of the Prime Minister’s Office wielding more power over the party and his argument that deputy-level ministers should be more proactive in policymaking instead of letting lawmakers “grumble at (the party’s) division meetings” drew heavy criticism from lawmakers.
“I believe that new party president Kishida will reliably lead the country,” Kono told reporters after the runoff.
Among the four candidates, Kishida was the first to throw his hat into the ring, declaring his candidacy in late August at a time when Suga was still eager to seek re-election despite slipping public approval.
Kishida was seen as the candidate who posed the most serious challenge to Suga at that time.
He also took a swing at Toshihiro Nikai, the party’s longest-serving secretary-general, proposing a term limit of up to three consecutive years for party executives — essentially a declaration of war against Nikai.
Some lawmakers outside of Nikai's faction have been irritated by the secretary-general's favoritism toward members of his own group, as well as his unwillingness to relinquish authority. As such, Kishida's move was hailed by LDP lawmakers frustrated with the secretary-general, but it predictably provoked Nikai. It also prodded Suga into action, with the prime minister attempting to squash Kishida’s momentum by proposing an executive reshuffle and letting Nikai go.
But Kishida's strategy for seizing the LDP presidency — making party reform his biggest selling point — fell apart after Suga announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. Still, on top of his own faction members, opposition to Kono saw Kishida earn the backing of a decent number of members of the party’s largest group — the Hosoda faction, de facto led by Abe. Kishida also attracted support from lawmakers belonging to the Aso faction, even though Kono is a member.
Some junior lawmakers had high hopes that this year’s presidential election would unleash a seismic shift within the party, disrupting a status quo defined by old-school faction-based politics in which LDP heavyweights have the final say.
The outcome, though, gave a glimpse into the harsh reality that veterans still hold tremendous power within the party, with Abe and Aso still wielding enormous influence. Any move by Kishida that defies the duo will likely be perceived as an act of provocation — perhaps even threatening to make him another “revolving door” leader.
Kishida might have become a more dynamic politician since last year, but questions about his management skills remain.
When he was the party’s policy council chairman last year, he dropped the ball when acting as a liaison between the Prime Minister’s Office, the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito on emergency cash handouts for people amid the pandemic. The money was eventually given to all residents, at Komeito’s insistence, even though it was initially proposed as targeted payments.
The blunder not only raised questions about his ability to coordinate with stakeholders but also cast doubt on the Abe administration’s pandemic response.
“I expect the new party president to show leadership that thoroughly takes into account the opinions of rank-and-file members and the people with a fresh sense of feeling … and to respond swiftly with policies,” Nikai told reporters after the election.
Although Kishida leads a traditionally dovish faction, he has talked about Taiwan being the “next big problem” and touched on revising the Self-Defense Forces law to ease the way for the overseas dispatch of the SDF on evacuation missions. The former foreign minister has also called for enhancing Japan’s missile defense system and intelligence gathering, as well as amending the national security strategy.
When he was foreign minister from 2012 to 2017, he coordinated U.S. President Barack Obama’s landmark visit to Hiroshima — Kishida’s electoral district — as well as an agreement with South Korea over wartime “comfort women,” a euphemism for those who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II. That pact has been in limbo during the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
In the realm of economics, Kishida has vowed to shift away from neoliberal policies, which he says have brought growth but widened the wealth gap — something that was exacerbated by the pandemic.
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