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Commentary: Japan needs a reformer, not stabilizer, in next PM Kishida

NAOYA YOSHINO, Nikkei political editor


TOKYO — In the end, the Liberal Democratic Party chose stability.


Fumio Kishida, who was elected leader of the ruling party, is widely considered a man of no surprises who will continue with the policies of his predecessors.


Many LDP lawmakers, anxious about the upcoming election for the lower house of parliament, had breathed a sigh of relief after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he would not run again for party president. The exit by an unpopular leader gave the party a boost in opinion polls across the board.


By electing Kishida, now slated to become Japan’s next prime minister in a parliamentary vote Monday, the LDP has signaled that it is done with change and wants to focus on party unity.


But rank-and-file party members overwhelmingly supported administrative reform and vaccine minister Taro Kono. Though they represent only about 1% of Japanese voters, their votes for the maverick candidate reflect a sense of crisis over the status quo and a desire for change. Kishida, who won the post of LDP president in a runoff against Kono, will need to acknowledge such underlying sentiment.


When it came to the coronavirus pandemic, none of the four candidates in Wednesday’s party leadership vote provided a clear road map for preventing a sixth wave of infections in Japan.


The lack of a plan appears to stem from hubris, in particular a belief that the LDP will fare reasonably well in the lower house election as long as it has a fresh face on top. Rather than honing its policies to boost Japan’s competitiveness in the world, the ruling party has put itself first by focusing on its performance in the polls.


The pandemic exposed many weaknesses in Japan’s governance. Siloed agencies failed to respond swiftly when the prime minister ordered improvements to Japan’s inefficient health care system. The quality of bureaucrats has been declining over the years, while the national and regional governments blame each other when things go wrong. Combined with a sluggish embrace of digital technology, chaos has engulfed Japan’s health care system as it grapples with the coronavirus.


Dysfunctional governance hinders all types of national policy, from diplomacy and security to the economy and trade. Ignoring the issue would only set Japan back from the rest of the world.


Suga as prime minister pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and to advance digitization efforts. These trends can no longer be reversed, and the new leader must clarify nuclear power’s murky role in Japan’s electricity mix instead of shying away from the topic.


Meanwhile, China and Taiwan this month both applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. Growing cross-strait tensions stem in part from the rivalry between China and the U.S.


Beijing’s political crackdown in Hong Kong suggests it will be difficult to strike the right balance in relations with China, whose President Xi Jinping has publicly called for unifying Taiwan with the mainland.


A crisis in neighboring Taiwan would be a crisis for Japan. Diplomatic efforts will continue to be the first resort. The alliance with the U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of Japan’s response. But to prevent a crisis from escalating into a military clash, Tokyo urgently needs to bolster its own deterrence as well. 


During the party race, Kishida touted his ability to listen. Hearing what the public has to say and ensuring that all households can put food on the table is a basic requirement for any country’s leader. But the bigger question is what the leader takes away from those observations, and how to translate them into policy.


When administrations change, a window of opportunity arises to get things done, sometimes drastically. It reflects the determination of the new leader to tackle difficult challenges. 


But those who lead by consensus often end up preserving the status quo. Japan cannot afford to lose any time in tackling the coronavirus and myriad other setbacks.


As leader, Kishida’s biggest responsibility is not to ensure stability within the LDP. Rather, he must deal with crises head on and resolutely guide necessary reforms to fruition.

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