The Liberal Democratic Party on Thursday formally chose outgoing Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi to replace Akira Amari as the party’s secretary-general, in an attempt to turn over a new leaf following the outgoing executive’s shocking defeat in the Lower House election.

The party’s general council approved the change during a morning meeting. Amari commended the election results, which saw the LDP obtain enough seats to maintain its firm control over parliament, but wanted to take responsibility for his loss in a single-member district, said General Council Chairman Tatsuo Fukuda.

At a news conference, Motegi identified three priorities to tackle as a party: reviving the pandemic-hit economy through a stimulus package, laying the groundwork for victory in next year’s Upper House election and advancing party reform, something that Kishida had pledged when he was running for the LDP leadership.

“We have received a great expression of confidence from the people (through the Lower House election), and we believe that we must live up to their expectations,” Motegi said Thursday afternoon.

Motegi said the reforms’ specifics will be hashed out in the near future but stressed the party will start implementing plans as soon as possible, perhaps even before the Upper House election.

He mentioned three main pillars for the reforms: building further trust with by realizing the policies they expect, making the best use of lawmakers from diverse backgrounds while considering new rules regarding personnel and party governance — including imposing a term limit on executives — and bringing younger lawmakers more actively into party affairs. On the last point, the incoming secretary-general noted that LDP politicians who have won four times or less now account more than a half of the ruling party’s overall number of lawmakers in the Lower House.

“Of course there will be reforms that will take some time to see results,” Motegi said. “For example, with regards to building a party where women can play an even more active role, it is difficult to say whether all the results will be achieved immediately starting next year. However, we will carry them out one by one while setting out our goals and ideas.”

The Liberal Democratic Party's outgoing Secretary-General Akira Amari (center) attends its general council at the party headquarters in Tokyo on Thursday. | KYODO
The Liberal Democratic Party’s outgoing Secretary-General Akira Amari (center) attends its general council at the party headquarters in Tokyo on Thursday. | KYODO

Kishida has not yet named Motegi’s replacement, telling reporters he will temporarily serve concurrently as foreign minister until a new Cabinet is formed Wednesday.

The choice of Motegi as secretary-general underscores Kishida’s desire to stabilize his power base within the party, as the appointee has an amicable relationship with the influential leaders of the LDP’s top two factions, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the party’s Vice President Taro Aso. Motegi is expected to secure lawmakers’ support in times of hardship and quell any pressure to oust Kishida.

With Motegi being the de facto leader of the Takeshita faction, the party’s third-largest, the prime minister might be tempted to bring members of that group into his government, along with members of the factions run by Abe and Aso.

Motegi, a 10-term lawmaker, has previously served on the party’s election strategy committee — a valuable asset for the Kishida administration given an Upper House election is slated for next summer, something that will be integral to Kishida further cementing his power. The outgoing foreign minister is known as a policy wonk who is well-versed in a variety of issues, especially those related to the economy and foreign policy, and he has served as the party’s policy council chair, trade minister and economy minister.

The change in the party’s No. 2 role on Kishida’s one-month anniversary as prime minister came after Amari, an instrumental player in LDP politics, lost his single-member constituency in a stunning upset in Sunday’s House of Representatives election.

It was the first time that the party’s sitting secretary-general had lost in their single-seat constituency, with voters turning against Amari after reports about bribery scandal from 2016 resurfaced. The constituents saw him as a symbol of old-school party politics that Kishida had pledged to overhaul during the LDP’s leadership contest, revolting against the prime minister’s decision to tap Amari for a powerful position responsible for endorsing candidates in elections and allocating political funds.

Amari ultimately won a seat through proportional representation, and there is no rule that a secretary-general has to step down if they lose in their single-seat constituency. In fact, some within the party tried to talk Amari into staying because of the leadership he demonstrated in pulling the party through a difficult election battle and securing a comfortable majority in the Lower House.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida waits to present a national statement as part of the World Leaders' Summit of the COP26 U.N. climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland on Tuesday. | POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida waits to present a national statement as part of the World Leaders’ Summit of the COP26 U.N. climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland on Tuesday. | POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI

Still, defeat in a single-seat constituency can blemish a lawmaker’s reputation, especially if the politician is the ruling party’s secretary-general. Besides, Amari might have feared that he would have continued to be subjected to attacks by the opposition over the bribery scandal. Amari has denied his involvement, and prosecutors decided not to indict him in 2016.

Motegi, meanwhile, has developed a reputation as a tough negotiator. The lawmaker was Japan’s point man in striking a trade deal with the United States and concluding negotiations on the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-member free trade agreement.

In 2019, Motegi struck the bilateral deal with then-U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in his capacity as economy minister, a feat achieved at a time when Washington was taking a hard-line approach to trade negotiations.

Before entering politics, the University of Tokyo and Harvard University graduate worked at trading house Marubeni Corp., the Yomiuri Shimbun as a political news reporter and McKinsey and Co. as a management consultant.

LDP lawmakers have applauded not only Motegi’s understanding of a diverse range of policies but also his ability to build consensus among relevant stakeholders behind the scenes.

“If (Motegi) could only work on policy, he wouldn’t have made it to that level,” one veteran LDP lawmaker said earlier this week.

At the same time, Motegi has been rumored to be a short-tempered politician. His tough disposition toward bureaucrats and tendency to snap at reporters asking questions he perceives as unfair has raised questions about his ability to maintain his composure while pushing back against criticism.

The distance between Motegi and Kishida, who has served as foreign minister before, will also be scrutinized. The influence of Amari was clear to see in Kishida’s selection of Cabinet and party positions, and whether the prime minister will display the same level of confidence in Motegi as he did with Amari will be closely watched.

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