COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
September 30, 2021 at 08:05 JST
Former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, right, celebrates with outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga after being announced the winner of the Liberal Democrat Party leadership election in Tokyo on Sept. 29. (Pool Photo via AP)
Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) anointed former foreign minister Fumio Kishida as its new leader on Wednesday, a victory for the party elite that virtually ensures the soft-spoken consensus-builder will become prime minister within days.
Although he enjoys only moderate popular support and is saddled with a bland image, Kishida drew critical backing from some party heavyweights, allowing him to stop the momentum of outspoken rising star Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the coronavirus vaccine roll-out.
The Hiroshima lawmaker succeeds unpopular Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who did not seek re-election as party leader after just one year in office. Kishida is almost certain to become premier at a Diet session on Monday because of the LDP's majority in the Lower House.
It was not clear if Kishida's tepid profile might spell problems for the LDP in a Lower House election due by Nov. 28.
He focused on populist issues--such as the need to forge a new kind of capitalism and ease divisions of wealth--in his first news conference.
"We can't achieve strong growth if wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small group of people," he said, citing a need to create a "virtuous cycle" of growth and wealth distribution.
"We will strive to achieve economic growth and distribution," of wealth, Kishida added, promising housing and education aid to address income disparity.
He has proposed a spending package of more than 30 trillion yen ($270 billion), and on Wednesday he said that stimulus must be compiled by the year-end.
Kishida is expected to form a new Cabinet and reshuffle the LDP executive in early October.
Parliament's lower chamber will probably be dissolved in mid-October with an election on either Nov. 7 or Nov. 14, Japanese media said, quoting LDP executives.
"A win for the establishment. Kishida stands for stability, for not rocking the boat and most importantly, doing what elite technocrats tell him to do," said Jesper Koll, expert director at Monex Group.
Kishida's rival Kono, a fluent English speaker with a large following on Twitter and reputation for being forthright and headstrong, has been seen as something of a maverick and therefore not seen as the top choice of some LDP powerbrokers.
Kono set himself apart from the mainstream of the party establishment on social issues by supporting legislation that would recognize gay marriage, something Kishida has not backed.
Wednesday’s vote was seen as a test of whether the party can move out of the shadow of Abe, a staunch conservative. His influence in government and party affairs has largely muzzled diverse views and shifted the party to the right. Political watchers say Kishida’s win indicates a continuation of LDP power politics led by Abe and his influential allies.
“The results showed that LDP does not and cannot change,” said Yukio Edano, head of the largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. “As new LDP president, Mr. Kishida should explain how his leadership is different from the Abe-Suga administrations.”
Kishida has called for party reforms by limiting terms for executive positions, but is seen as a choice who could prolong an era of unusual political stability amid fears that Japan could return to “revolving door” leadership.
“Concern is not about individuals but stability of Japanese politics," Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a telephone briefing ahead of the vote.
Green said voters will be watching if Kishida is swayed by power politics within his party or is attuned to the public.
Two female contenders, Sanae Takaichi, 60, and Seiko Noda, 61, dropped out of the leadership race after the first round.
Kishida is unlikely to go out on a limb with major policy shifts as Japan seeks to cope with an assertive China and revive an economy hit by the pandemic.
He shares a broad consensus on the need to boost Japan's defenses and strengthen security ties with the United States and other partners including the QUAD grouping of Japan, the United States, Australia and India, while preserving trade ties with China.
Kishida wants to beef up Japan's coast guard and favors passing a resolution condemning China's treatment of members of its Uyghur minority. He also aims to appoint a prime ministerial aide to monitor the Uyghur human rights situation.
Kishida was "the best possible option for Beijing," CGTN, the English-language channel of China's state television CGTV, said in a commentary after the leadership result.
His victory offers an opportunity for relations between the two countries to improve, it said.
He was first elected to parliament in 1993. An advocate for nuclear disarmament, he escorted former U.S. President Barack Obama during his 2016 visit to Hiroshima, the city that was obliterated together with Nagasaki in U.S. atomic bombings in the closing days of World War II.
As foreign minister under Abe, he struck a 2015 agreement with South Korea to resolve a row over the issue of "comfort women" who were forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers before and during World War II, part of a legacy that still hampers relations between the two countries.
The banker-turned-lawmaker enjoys drinking sake and is a staunch supporter of his hometown professional baseball team, the Hiroshima Carp.
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