• The San Juan Daily Star

Choice for Japan’s prime minister is party stalwart with little popular appeal

Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, was chosen on Wednesday to lead the governing party.

By Motoko Rich

In a triumph of elite power brokers over public sentiment, Japan’s governing party Wednesday elected Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, as its choice for the next prime minister.

By selecting Kishida, 64, a moderate party stalwart, in a runoff election for the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party, the party’s elites appeared to disregard the public’s preferences and choose a candidate who offered little to distinguish himself from the unpopular departing prime minister, Yoshihide Suga.

Wednesday’s leadership election was the most hotly contested in years. While party leaders usually coalesce around a candidate, this time it was not clear that Kishida would prevail until the ballots were counted in a second round at a luxury hotel in Tokyo.

Kishida defeated his chief rival, Taro Kono, an outspoken American-educated maverick, 257-170, in a runoff vote dominated by the party’s members of parliament.

Neither the public nor the rank-and-file members of the party had shown much support for Kishida. But the conservative wing of the party, which dominates parliament, preferred Kishida to Kono, 58, the minister in charge of Japan’s vaccine rollout.

Japan’s parliament will hold a special session early next month to officially select the new prime minister. Given that the Liberal Democrats control the legislature, Kishida’s appointment is all but guaranteed. He will also lead the party in a general election that must be held no later than the end of November.

By going with the safe pair of hands, the party seemed to demonstrate its confidence that it could win in the fall election despite choosing a leader with lackluster public support.

After a year in which voters grew increasingly frustrated with the government’s handling of the pandemic and associated economic woes, the party seems to be counting on the opposition’s weakness and the public’s tolerance for the status quo.

During the campaign, Kishida appeared to acknowledge some public dissatisfaction as he promised to introduce a “new capitalism” and encourage companies to distribute more of their profits to middle-class workers.

In doing so, he is following a familiar template within the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been adept at adopting policies first introduced by the opposition in order to keep voters assuaged.

The party leadership election was notable in that it was the first time two women vied for the top post. Sanae Takaichi, 60, a hard-line conservative backed by Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, and Seiko Noda, 61, a left-leaning lawmaker who called for more rights for women, the elderly and those with disabilities, were eliminated in the first round.