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Although former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida won the Liberal Democratic Party leadership contest Wednesday, perhaps the ultimate winner was Shinzo Abe.

The most urgent priority for Abe, who held the position for almost eight years, was deflating Taro Kono’s momentum as a contender — even though the vaccine czar enjoys widespread support among rank-and-file LDP members as well as the public. Kono is disdained by conservative lawmakers close to the former prime minister for his liberal stances on social issues and nuclear energy, along with his outspokenness.

“It’s ABK: anyone but Kono,” one lawmaker belonging to the Hosoda faction acknowledged last week when explaining the strategy of the group, of which Abe is de facto leader.

In the beginning, Abe openly threw his weight behind former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi following the stunning announcement from incumbent Yoshihide Suga that he would not seek re-election as LDP party leader.

Abe’s ardent campaigning for Takaichi, who espouses a hard-line conservative ideology that aligns with his but was considered an unlikely candidate, came as a surprise, since Abe once actively considered Kishida to be his successor.

However, since the leadership election there has been growing speculation among political observers and lawmakers that Abe did not, in fact, turn his back on Kishida entirely.

By choosing to stand behind Takaichi, Abe wanted to strengthen the LDP’s right wing. Even if Takaichi failed to win or advance to a second round, Abe could rally his candidate’s supporters behind Kishida in a runoff, thereby making the presumptive prime minister feel indebted to Abe and Takaichi. Such a move would also enable Abe to demonstrate his influence within the party.

New Liberal Democratic Party President Fumio Kishida (right) and former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi pose at a gathering in Tokyo on Wednesday after the LDP presidential election. | KYODO
New Liberal Democratic Party President Fumio Kishida (right) and former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi pose at a gathering in Tokyo on Wednesday after the LDP presidential election. | KYODO

“In the end, the outcome benefited Abe,” said Ko Maeda, associate professor of politics at the University of North Texas. “Abe succeeded in keeping conservative LDP members loyal to the LDP.

“They will stay energized in the hope of helping Takaichi win the prime ministership in the future. … If Abe had not campaigned hard for Takaichi, he would have become a person of the past regardless of who — Kono or Kishida — became the new prime minister.”

If that was Abe’s true intention, the end result was more than satisfactory. In Wednesday’s voting, Kishida won first place and Kono captured second place in the first round, with the difference between the top two contenders standing at just one vote — 256 to 255. But among lawmakers, Kono placed third with 86 votes, far behind second-place Takaichi, who earned 114 votes.

In the runoff, where lawmakers’ votes account for a higher proportion of the tally compared with representatives of LDP prefectural chapters, Kishida defeated Kono by 257 votes to 170, with 249 lawmakers supporting Kishida.

Most factions other than Kishida’s essentially allowed their members to cast their ballot for their favorite pick, but the expectation was that members would choose from a list of approved candidates. The Hosoda and the Aso groups, the party’s largest and second-largest factions, respectively, included Kishida among their selections.

Representatives from the Kishida and Takaichi camps reportedly met Tuesday night, where they mutually agreed to back each other in case one of them faced Kono in a runoff. Considering the wide margin between Kono and Kishida in the number of lawmaker votes in the runoff, it is presumed that many of Takaichi’s supporters voted for the new leader.

Kishida is not a bad choice for Abe, either. The former prime minister identified Kishida as one of Suga’s potential successors in a monthly magazine published late May, describing him as “sincere.”

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe casts his vote in the second round of the Liberal Democratic Party's leadership election in Tokyo on Wednesday. | KYODO
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe casts his vote in the second round of the Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership election in Tokyo on Wednesday. | KYODO

But one significant challenge for Kishida, who is poised to become the country’s 100th prime minister on Monday, is striking a balance between appointing young and midlevel lawmakers to important positions to shake up the party as promised while managing not to antagonize party veterans.

It is speculated that former trade minister Akira Amari and education minister Koichi Hagiuda — both close to Abe and his important ally, finance minister Taro Aso — will be handed critical positions on the party executive or in the Cabinet. Multiple media outlets, including public broadcaster NHK, reported Thursday that Kishida will tap Amari for secretary-general, the LDP’s most powerful role after the president.

Hirokazu Matsuno, a member of the Hosoda faction, is believed to have been nominated for chief Cabinet secretary, NHK reported Thursday evening.

During the campaign, Kishida also promised to welcome the three rival candidates into his administration. Takaichi is most likely to be nominated to a key Cabinet position, but it is uncertain how Kono will be treated. There is a fear of a backlash from the public if Kishida pushes the vaccine czar too far to the side, but Kishida could risk anger from party heavyweights if he is given a high-profile role.

NHK reported Thursday evening that Kono will be put in charge of the party’s public relations, a demotion from his current position. Takaichi, on the other hand, will become the party’s policy council chairperson, a role she previously occupied, the broadcaster said.

Tatsuo Fukuda, a three-term Lower House member and the leader of a group of junior Diet members who had demanded that faction executives let lawmakers vote freely in the presidential election, is set to be appointed as the party’s general council chairperson, according to NHK. Former Olympics minister Toshiaki Endo, who ran Kishida’s campaign, is reportedly to be tapped as the election strategy committee chairperson.

The new LDP executive lineup is expected to be officially revealed Friday.

On Wednesday night, Kishida insisted he has not walked away from his commitment to advance party reforms — including imposing a limit on the terms of executives of up to three consecutive years — saying he hasn’t shifted “even one millimeter.”

“I believe Mr. Kishida will face difficulty running the administration while keeping some distance from Mr. Abe,” said Yusuke Suzumura, an associate professor of politics at Meijo University.

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