MITSURU OBE, Nikkei Asia chief business news correspondent
TOKYO — Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, won a four-way race to lead Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Wednesday, setting him up to succeed Yoshihide Suga as prime minister and take the party into a general election this autumn.
The contest went to a runoff after none of the four candidates got a majority in the first round of voting involving the LDP’s 382 lawmakers and its 1.1 million rank-and-file members. Kishida, 64, will be formally elected as prime minister in a parliamentary session scheduled to begin on Oct. 4.
Kishida won 257 votes against 170 for vaccine minister Taro Kono, the runoff contender. The results came after a surprisingly strong showing by Kishida in the first round, coming on top among the four contenders. Before the election, Kono had been widely considered as the favorite to lead the first round of the vote.
The triennial leadership contest came amid a sliding popularity of Suga and mounting calls for a leadership change within the LDP. The Hiroshima native faces the immediate challenge of helping the party win the lower house election and an upper house poll next summer. He will be tasked with keeping the coronavirus pandemic under control, finding new areas of growth for the economy as it emerges from the health crisis and dealing with regional security issues stemming from the rise of China.
The election was held in a ballroom of a Tokyo hotel. Kishida was as calm and composed as always when he rose to the stage after the election. “Our country’s democracy is in crisis. People feel that their voices aren’t heard in politics,” Kishida said, addressing the fellow lawmakers present. “One thing I’m good at is listening to other people,” he stressed. “We have to show to the people that our party has changed so they will give us support.”
Kishida promised to compile an economic stimulus package worth hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the year, adding that the country is facing multiple challenges, including the COVID crisis, an aging population, keeping the Indo-Pacific region free and open, and creating a new capitalism for the people.
At a press conference in the evening, Kishida talked about his “three resolves” in realizing the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region — to protect fundamental values such as democracy, to maintain peace and stability in and around Japan, and to make Japan an important player by actively contributing to global issues such as climate change.
Kishida also presented his vision of “new capitalism,” an antithesis to traditional neoliberal economic policy.
“The fruits of economic growth have been concentrated among a small group of people,” he said, while acknowledging the importance of creating economic growth in the first place. “Such fruits need to be shared among as many people as possible. The gaps between the wealthy, the middle and low-income groups, the big and provincial cities, have to be closed.”
Kishida had been groomed as potential successor during former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, serving as his foreign minister between 2012 and 2017 and LDP policy chief from 2017 to 2020.
Holding moderate views on many issues, including nuclear power and foreign policy, he garnered broad support from the LDP’s major factions and endorsements from party bosses.
Such backing helped him beat Kono, who got more support from rank-and-file party members. Former internal affairs ministers Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda, both women, were eliminated in the first round.