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Newly elected Liberal Democratic Party President Fumio Kishida became Japan’s 100th prime minister on Monday, taking the reins of a country battling the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing number of security threats. On top of this, there is a looming general election that he must successfully lead his party through.

Kishida was elected in both houses of the Diet on Monday. The new prime minister told reporters Monday evening that he will dissolve the Lower House on Oct. 14 and hold a general election on Oct. 31.

“I would like to realize measures related to the coronavirus and the economy that are large scale and drastic as soon as possible,” Kishida said in a news conference. “In order to do so, the first thing I would like to do is ask the people of Japan to make a decision as to whether or not they will entrust Kishida with this task, and if they believe it is possible, I would like to move forward with a politics of trust and sympathy, backed by a mandate from the people.”

Asked about the upcoming Group of 20 and COP26 summits, the prime minister said he would participate remotely.

Although he looked nervous during the news conference and stumbled here and there, he largely spoke and answered questions comfortably, most of the time looking at the audience of reporters.

Characterizing his Cabinet as the one that will “build a new era together,” he called for creating a new model of capitalism focused on growth and redistribution by empowering the middle class and facilitating digitalization. He said he would launch a council tasked with laying out a blueprint for achieving that vision.

Identifying the coronavirus response as the administration’s most pressing issue, Kishida said he had instructed the three Cabinet members leading the fight against the pandemic to develop an overall framework for virus countermeasures in order to beef up initiatives on vaccinations, the health care system and testing.

As the Lower House speaker declared Kishida’s successful nomination early in the afternoon, the new prime minister stood up from his chair and, with a tense look on his face and pursed lips, bowed to his fellow lawmakers, who gave him thunderous applause.

Later in the day, a Cabinet lineup was revealed that underscored Kishida’s promise to tap younger lawmakers for a handful of posts. The new prime minister is seeking to turn around the image that the LDP favors aging party grandees over fresh voices and brush aside accusations that his administration would be dominated by veterans.

New Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno announces new Cabinet members at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday. | REUTERS
New Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno announces new Cabinet members at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday. | REUTERS

Of the 20 Cabinet posts, 13 were filled by rookie ministers, a striking contrast with outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who had placed a high priority on continuity with his successor, Shinzo Abe, welcoming just five newcomers into his Cabinet.

Kishida’s Cabinet consists of a range of ages, with its youngest member 44 and its oldest 77. Three of the 20 are women.

The lineup also revealed Kishida’s strong resolve to bestow notable Cabinet positions on relatively junior lawmakers who have won re-election three times. For the high-profile posts of digital minister and minister in charge of administrative reform, Kishida tapped Karen Makishima, a three-term lawmaker from the faction led by party heavyweight Taro Aso. He also picked Noriko Horiuchi, a three-term lawmaker from his own faction, to replace his LDP election rival Taro Kono as vaccination minister.

The prime minister has also fulfilled his campaign pledge to bring his leadership rivals into the mix, appointing LDP Deputy Secretary-General Seiko Noda as minister in charge of tackling the declining birthrate.

At the same time, he has paid consideration to the two key factions integral to his victory in last month’s contest — the Abe-led Hosoda faction, the LDP’s largest, and the Aso faction, the second-largest.

During the leadership contest, Abe and Aso, who are both known as kingmakers possessing considerable sway within the party, were believed to have tipped the scale in favor of Kishida in an effort to preserve and even augment their power. Aso will be the party’s vice president, an honorary post.

Seven of the 20 Cabinet positions are occupied by members of either the Hosoda or Aso factions. They are joined by three from Kishida’s own faction and four from the Takeshita faction, which threw its support behind him in the runoff election.

For chief Cabinet secretary — a combination of the government’s top spokesperson and chief of staff — Kishida tapped former education minister Hirokazu Matsuno of the Hosoda faction. Former Olympics minister Shunichi Suzuki, Aso’s brother-in-law and the son of a former prime minister, will take over for Aso as finance chief, the first shakeup of the post in about nine years.

New Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki speaks at a news conference in Tokyo in 2017. | REUTERS
New Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki speaks at a news conference in Tokyo in 2017. | REUTERS

Outgoing education minister Koichi Hagiuda of the Hosoda faction became trade minister, while Shinsuke Suematsu of the Hosoda faction assumed the education post. There are no ministers from the Ishiba faction, whose leader, former defense chief Shigeru Ishiba, endorsed Kono in the leadership election. The new justice minister Yoshihisa Furukawa left the Ishiba faction late last month.

Kishida also kept Toshimitsu Motegi and Abe’s younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, as foreign and defense ministers, respectively. Like two of his predecessors, Kishida — Japan’s longest-serving top diplomat — will most likely continue deepening cooperation with the U.S. and other countries to counter China.

In the realm of national security, the new administration is expected to adopt a particular focus on economic security. In one signal of this shift, Kishida nominated three-term lawmaker Takayuki Kobayashi to a newly established ministerial post in charge of economic security.

On Friday, he installed Aso’s close ally Akira Amari, a firm believer in bolstering the nation’s economic security, as the party’s secretary-general, the most powerful person within the LDP after the president. Although Kishida’s faction has historically been seen as dovish, the new administration will likely continue to take a harder-line stance on China, following the ouster of pro-China Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai.

Kishida has also vowed to create a new post within the Prime Minister’s Office for dealing with human rights issues — a position that would implicitly target China — and embraced a parliamentary motion condemning Beijing’s alleged human rights abuses.

On Monday night, Kishida stressed the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance and the necessity of Japan reinforcing its defense capabilities, including enhancing the country’s missile defense system. As a politician who was born in Hiroshima, one of the two cities where atomic bombs were dropped during World War II, he said he would strive to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.

In order to repatriate Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s, Kishida said he is ready to meet the country’s leader Kim Jong-un without preconditions.

New Digital Minister Karen Makishima speaks at a Lower House session in 2019. | KYODO
New Digital Minister Karen Makishima speaks at a Lower House session in 2019. | KYODO

Mentioning widening income inequality exacerbated by the pandemic, Kishida is calling for a shift away from neoliberalism toward the institution of a new type of capitalism, with its central pillars being the redistribution of wealth and boosting people’s wages to enable more to enter the middle class. He has identified a stimulus package worth tens of trillions of yen to counter the economic fallout from the pandemic as a top priority for the administration.

In preparation for a next wave of COVID-19 cases, Kishida has introduced new faces into his Cabinet, replacing ministers involved in Suga’s much-maligned coronavirus response — the health minister, coronavirus response minister and vaccine minister — in an effort to carve out a new approach to dealing with the pandemic.

Kishida has pledged to strengthen the health care system by enabling the central government to set up field hospitals and requisition large-scale facilities. He has suggested establishing a government agency housed under the Cabinet Office that serves as a command center to deal with public health crises. The agency would be given powerful authority and operate under its own minister to make clear where responsibility lies.

To showcase his legislative agenda and answer opposition parties’ demands, Kishida will deliver a policy speech on Friday and take questions from party representatives next week in the Diet.

But before getting down to business on policy issues, Kishida’s most pressing priority will be ensuring the LDP and its junior partner Komeito retain a majority in the Lower House in the general election, a victory that would confer on him a solid mandate.

“How to go about the dissolution of the Lower House and the general election is the prime minister’s sole authority, so I haven’t officially heard anything about it, but I expect Prime Minister Kishida will present such a plan” Amari said on public broadcaster NHK.

Fumio Kishida bows after being chosen as the new prime minister in the Lower House in Tokyo on Monday. | REUTERS
Fumio Kishida bows after being chosen as the new prime minister in the Lower House in Tokyo on Monday. | REUTERS

The LDP and Komeito are hoping to maintain a majority in the Lower House by holding the election in the early days of his administration while his Cabinet’s approval ratings remain high. The coalition, though, is concerned about how successful planned cooperation between the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Japanese Communist Party will be. The opposition camp is working toward putting forward a single candidate in as many districts as possible so as not to split votes among supporters.

Kishida’s emergence has largely been framed as a story of a comeback. He dared to challenge Suga — who was backed by party stalwarts — in last year’s leadership election and lost. As a result, the former top diplomat and his faction’s members were largely sidelined from important posts over the past year. Fellow LDP lawmakers, as Kishida has recalled, said his career was finished.

Nevertheless, Kishida was the first candidate to officially challenge Suga in this year’s leadership race, raising the alarm over the public’s declining trust in politics and even declaring that Japan’s democracy is at risk.

Facing severe public backlash over his coronavirus response, Suga’s job approval ratings had plummeted into dangerous territory — prompting panic among lawmakers who feared for their electoral chances with a weak prime minister leading them into the Lower House poll.

Taking direct aim at Nikai, whose management style has drawn accusations of favoritism from some lawmakers, Kishida proposed imposing a three-year term limit for party executives.

Even though the move angered Nikai as expected, party heavyweights at odds with the longest-serving secretary-general, including Aso and Abe, praised Kishida’s audacity in confronting the LDP leadership and lent their support.

Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida poses at the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters after being elected as party president in Tokyo on Wednesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida poses at the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters after being elected as party president in Tokyo on Wednesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

The entry into the race of Kono, the public’s pick to be prime minister, was initially thought to put Kishida at a disadvantage, considering Kono’s strong social media and internet presence.

But the outspoken Kono’s liberal stances on social issues and his flip-flopping on nuclear energy ultimately turned off enough lawmakers to tilt the odds of victory in Kishida’s favor. Despite Kono’s popularity and his position as a member of Aso’s faction, he struggled to obtain backing from lawmakers in that group, with many preferring Kishida.

Kono has taken over the party’s public relations department, in what is understood to be a demotion from his role in the Suga administration.

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