Japan faces big problems. Its next leader offers few bold solutions.
TOKYO – With the world’s oldest population, rapidly declining births, gargantuan public debt and increasingly damaging natural disasters fueled by climate change, Japan faces deep-rooted challenges as the ruling party longtime failed to rise.
Yet by choosing a new prime minister on Wednesday, the Liberal Democratic Party elected the candidate least likely to come up with bold solutions.
The party’s elite power brokers picked Fumio Kishida, 64, a moderate loyalist, in the second round of the leadership election, appearing to ignore the public’s preference for a maverick challenger. In doing so, they anointed a politician with little to distinguish him from the unpopular outgoing leader, Yoshihide Suga, or his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
The elders of the party, which had a virtual monopoly on power in the decades following World War II, made their choice convinced that with weak political opposition and low voter turnout they would have little chances of losing a general election later this year. . So, largely isolated from voter pressure, they opted for a predictable former foreign minister who learned to control any impulse to stray from the platform of the dominant party.
âIn a sense, you ignore the grassroots voice in order to find someone that party leaders are more comfortable with,â said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.
But choosing a leader who lacks popular support carries the risk of a backlash that weakens the party after the election and makes Mr. Kishida’s job more difficult as the country slowly emerges from six months of pandemic restrictions that have plagued the country. economy.
Mr Kishida will need to earn the public’s trust to show that he is not just a party insider, said Kristi Govella, deputy director of the Asia program of the US German Marshall Fund.
“If challenges start to arise,” she said, “we could see his approval ratings drop very quickly as he is starting from a relatively modest point of support.”
Mr Kishida was one of four contenders for the leadership position in an unusually close race that ended in a run-off between him and Taro Kono, an outspoken maverick whose common touch l ‘made it popular with the public and the grassroots. party members. Mr Kishida won in the second ballot, in which votes cast by members of parliament outweighed votes cast by other party members.
He will become prime minister when parliament holds an extraordinary session next week, and then leads the party to general elections, which are due to take place by November.
In his victory speech on Wednesday, Kishida acknowledged the challenges he faces. âWe have mountains of important issues ahead of us in the future of Japan,â he said.
They are emerging both at home and abroad. Mr Kishida faces growing tensions in the region as China has become increasingly aggressive and North Korea has resumed testing ballistic missiles. Taiwan is seeking to join a multilateral trade pact that Japan helped negotiate, and Mr Kishida may need to help refine a decision on how to accept the autonomous island into the group without angering China.
As a former foreign minister, Mr Kishida may find it easier to manage his international portfolio. Most analysts expect him to maintain a strong relationship with the United States and continue to rely on alliances with Australia and India to build a bulwark against China.
But domestically, he mainly proposes a continuation of the economic policies of Mr. Abe, which have failed to remedy the stagnation of the country. Income inequality increases as fewer workers benefit from Japan’s much-vaunted lifelong employment system – a reality reflected in Mr. Kishida’s campaign pledge of a “new capitalism” that encourages companies to share more profits. with middle class workers.
“Japan’s accumulated debt is growing, and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, senior researcher at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. “I don’t think even a genius can tackle this.”
As for the pandemic, Mr Kishida may initially escape some of the pressures that have weighed on Mr Suga as the rollout of the vaccine has accelerated and nearly 60% of the public are now vaccinated. But Mr. Kishida has offered few concrete policies to tackle other issues like aging, population decline or climate change.
In a magazine questionnaire, he said he needed a “scientific verification” that human activities were causing global warming, saying: “I think it is to some extent.”
Given the lingering power of the right wing of the Liberal Democratic Party, despite his minority position within the party, Mr Kishida closed the day he had with these power brokers during the campaign.
He had previously gained a reputation for being more conciliatory than the influential right wing led by Mr Abe, but during the leadership race he expressed a hawkish stance towards China. As a parliamentary representative for Hiroshima, Kishida opposed nuclear weapons, but clearly expressed his support for restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants, which have been shut down since Fukushima’s triple meltdown 10 years ago. years.
And he toned down his support for revising a law requiring married couples to share a surname for legal purposes and said he would not approve same-sex marriage, going against public opinion. public but respecting the views of the party’s conservative elite.
“I think Kishida knows how he won, and it wasn’t by appealing to the general public, it wasn’t by presenting himself as a liberal, but by wooing the support of his right,” said Tobias Harris. , principal investigator at the Center for American Progress. in Washington. “So what this is going to mean for his cabinet makeup and priorities, and what his party’s platform ultimately looks like, means he could end up being pulled in a number of different directions.”
In many ways, Wednesday’s election represented a referendum on the enduring weight of Mr Abe, who resigned last fall due to health concerns. He had led the party for eight consecutive years, a remarkable passage given Japan’s history from revolving-door prime ministers. When he resigned, the party chose Mr Suga, who had been Mr Abe’s chief secretary to cabinet, to extend his boss’s legacy.
But over the past year, audiences have grown increasingly disillusioned with Mr. Suga, who lacked charisma and failed to connect with average voters. Although Mr Abe backed Sanae Takaichi – a die-hard conservative who sought to become Japan’s first female prime minister – to revitalize his base in the party’s far right, analysts and other lawmakers have said he had helped orient support for Mr Kishida in the second round. .
As a result, Mr. Kishida could become indebted to his predecessor.
“Kishida cannot go against what Abe wants,” said Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister who has challenged Mr Abe for party leadership twice and withdrew from the elections. management this month to support Mr. Kono.
“I’m not sure I would use the word ‘puppet’, but maybe he’s a puppet?” Added Mr. Ishiba. “What is clear is that it depends on Abe’s influence.”
During the leadership campaign, Mr. Kishida appeared to acknowledge some dissatisfaction with the Abe era with his ânew capitalismâ speech. In doing so, he followed a familiar pattern within the Liberal Democrats, which were adept at enacting policies first introduced by the opposition in order to keep voters appeased.
“This is one of the reasons they have maintained such longevity as a party,” said Saori N. Katada, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. “Kishida definitely takes this card and runs with it.”
Makiko Inoue, Hikari Hida and Hisako Ueno contributed reports.