Kishida Fumio, a former chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party Policy Research Council, has been elected the 27th president of the party. Kishida will be appointed the 100th prime minister of Japan at an extraordinary Diet session to be convened on Oct. 4. With a House of Representatives election coming up soon, however, he can’t afford to spend time savoring his victory.
Although Japan is gaining the upper hand against its fifth wave of COVID-19, the nation still faces many urgent issues, such as reinforcing the medical system. Opposition parties have criticized the LDP, saying that “COVID countermeasures have been neglected because leaders were preoccupied with the presidential election.” We would like to see Kishida recognize the administration’s responsibilities and prevent a political vacuum from arising with the Lower House election.
Kishida won thanks to support from full range of factions
The LDP presidential race got off to an unusual start with incumbent Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide abandoning his plan to run for reelection because of the slump in his cabinet’s approval rating in public opinion polls. Kishida and Kono Taro ran for the party presidency—their second bids for the office—as did Takaichi Sanae and Noda Seiko, who were running for the party leadership position for the first time. Having two women run for the office enhanced the LDP’s image to a certain degree.
In last year’s LDP presidential election, the party’s main factions joined forces in supporting Suga, making for a dull race. It is commendable that there was wide-ranging policy debate this time. In the upcoming Lower House election, we would like to see such issues as pension reform, energy, and the question of acquiring enemy base attack capabilities discussed in depth in addition to the policy positions of individual candidates.
Kishida won the presidential election because he offers a sense of stability. He has served as foreign minister and LDP Policy Research Council chairman and held other key positions without any serious mishaps occurring. He used to be known for having a bland way of speaking but now speaks with considerably more charisma. He is also well received in Kasumigaseki, so relations between politicians and bureaucrats, which were discordant during the Suga Cabinet, are likely to improve.
These advantages could turn into disadvantages, however. In the presidential election, Kishida earned a high level of support from LDP Diet members in both the first-round vote and the runoff vote. In addition to the members of his own Kishida faction, he received support from major factions across the board, including the Hosoda faction.
Kishida is likely to manage the party while taking into consideration the wishes of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aso Taro. Regarding the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution scandals that occurred under Abe, there was a period when inconsistent statements were made regarding whether the two incidents would be reinvestigated. If the public thinks that [Abe and Aso] “are pulling the strings behind the scenes,” it may turn its back on Kishida. Depending on how the Lower House election goes, it is not inconceivable that the Kishida administration will be short-lived.
In his presidential election platform, Kishida indicated he would emphasize party reform, including limiting the length of party officers’ terms in office and actively appointing young legislators to important positions. Whether the LDP is able to make people think it has not only changed its leader but also been reborn will be critical.
In assigning Cabinet ministers and LDP officers, it is important that Kishida not underrate the importance of this period leading up to the Lower House election and that he create a lineup that gives the impression of reform.
Although Kono had solid support in public opinion polls and was thought to be leading the presidential election in the early stages, his backing in the actual presidential election was sluggish. This is because the LDP’s approval rate rebounded in the polls, and more and more people in the LDP came to think that the party would not lose many seats in the Lower House election no matter who the party president was. Moreover, even though the public approval rating of the Suga Cabinet declined, backing for the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties did not increase.
It is indisputable, however, that Kono, who is viewed within the party as a maverick, has gained popularity outside Nagatacho. Why is this? If the LDP does not thoroughly analyze this and work on measures to attract independents, it may come back to haunt the party. This also requires consideration on why the Suga Cabinet’s approval rating dropped by half in the space of one year from 74% in the Nikkei spot opinion poll taken right after its inauguration.
Learn from lessons of Suga Cabinet
The biggest reason [for the decline in support for the Suga Cabinet] is that the public thought the COVID-19 countermeasures were not moving forward well. At the press conference Suga held after announcing his resignation as well as at other occasions, the Prime Minister emphasized that he had achieved the goal of administering 1 million vaccinations a day, a goal thought very difficult to reach. He likely wanted to point out that not all COVID measures were inadequate.
The problem lies in the fact that he emphasized so strongly that absolutely everything was going well that all of the [government’s] explanations came to sound hollow. It would have been easier to gain the public’s understanding if the government had frankly stated what was working and what was not working and then shown that they were doing their utmost to improve things.
Moreover, regarding the holding of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, Suga’s refusing to say anything more than that the Games would be held in a “safe and secure” manner made the public feel estranged.
Can the Kishida administration apply the lessons of the Suga Cabinet? A thorough explanation is not measured by the attractiveness of the charts or the length of time spent speaking, but rather in giving people the sense that the speaker is looking at things from the same perspective as they are.
“I aim to have a magnanimous government that reaches every citizen and to restore unity among the people of our nation,” explained Kishida at the press conference after his election. We want to see him follow through with that stance.