Shinzo Abe led Japan for nine years, longer than all of the country’s other post-World War II leaders. He served as prime minister between 2012 and 2020, when he resigned because of ill health, and before that in 2006 and 2007. It’s not quite an Angela Merkel-length reign, but, much like the departing German chancellor, Abe left a significant legacy on his country and international relations.
Now, for Japan at least, it is proving hard to move on. On Wednesday, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party announced that it had selected former foreign minister Fumio Kishida to be its new president. This means Kishida will take over as prime minister next week and likely represent the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), long the dominant party in postwar Japan, in the next election.
Though he had promised a “rebirth” of the LDP, Kishida has been vague on what this will mean. “Mr. Kishida’s lack of a strong vision is part of what got him elected,” the Economist wrote this week, adding that unlike some of his rivals he was considered “far less threatening and more pliable,” but that “expectations are low.”
As The Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Julia Mio Inuma report from Tokyo, there is little in Kishida’s background to suggest he’ll break with the status quo. The 64-year-old Kishida served under Abe and has had a lengthy political career. And much like his former boss, Kishida was born into political dynasty with both his father and grandfather politicians.
Masato Kamikubo, a professor of political science at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, told Nikkei that as a veteran politician, Kishida had “no track record of major failure.” Then he added a caveat: “There’s no track record of any major success in policymaking, either.”
A shake up to the status quo may be what is needed. Kishida took over from the outgoing Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s immediate successor, who had survived in office only one year before announcing in early September that he would step down amid approval ratings that hit a dismal 26 percent this summer.
The downfall of Suga, who had once been Abe’s right-hand man, was widely attributed to the Japanese government’s failures in its coronavirus response. But the current issues vexing Japanese society are wider than just the pandemic and include the country’s mounting debt problem and resurgent foreign policy threats posed by North Korea and China.
Other potential candidates for LDP leader had promised broader change. Taro Kono, Japan’s vaccine minister and another former foreign minister, had offered a far more outspoken, populist bid for leadership and emerged as a favorite. Though he was the most popular among rank-and-file LDP party members, Kono ultimately failed in his leadership bid as Kishida was more popular with party officials, costing him the second round of voting.
Though he too came from a political dynasty, Kono’s left-leaning social views — including support for same-sex marriage, opposition to nuclear power and dovish foreign policy — put him at odds with the LDP’s right-wing old guard. His regularly updated Twitter accounts, which have millions of followers and he appears to man himself, probably didn’t help:
The two other leading candidates to take over the LDP were women who had different approaches to their candidacy, with Sanae Takaichi touting her conservative values and Seiko Noda emphasizing the need for gender equality. Notably, Takaichi was Abe’s original choice candidate.
Just the presence of two women in the final round was a step for a country that has never had a female leader. But neither won nor came close to winning. As Yuriko Koike, the popular governor of Tokyo who was considered an early candidate, put it this month, “though there’s no Taliban in Japan, I wonder why women’s advancement in society is so delayed.”
There’s another big thing missing from this entire conversation: Japan’s opposition parties.
The LDP has dominated Japanese politics for decades, losing only two elections and being in power for all but four years since its founding in 1955. Even though its current grip on power relies on an unusual electoral partnership with the political arm of the Soka Gakkai religious movement, the Komeito Party, few expected the LDP to lose the next election no matter who is running the party.
Part of the blame for that surely lies with the opposition parties, including the Democratic Party of Japan, which won a landslide election in 2009 but soon collapsed amid division and inaction. But some analysts put the blame on Japan’s electoral system — a mixture of party-list and first-past-the-post voting — that gives the LDP an advantage and creates “democracy without competition.”
The end result is that Japan comes perilously close to being a one-party state and that internal LDP leadership bids hold national impact even when they are of limited democratic value. It means that relatively liberal LDP figures like Kishida end up tacking to the more hawkish right to appeal to powerful factions in the party and explains why more popular candidates like Kono stall out.
Will Kishida move Japan on Abe’s legacy? Some analysts believe he may take the country away from the pro-growth Abeconomics espoused by his predecessor, having previously cited concerns about how “wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small group of people.” But whether he can do so may depend on what sort of electoral mandate he can get.
Abe’s long rule had helped mask Japan’s political dysfunction, but since his unexpected resignation due to ulcerative colitis, the symptoms are clear to see. Merkel led Germany for twice as long and this weekend’s election to succeed her is still deeply inconclusive. Yet it may be that Japan struggles for far longer to shake its post-Abe hangover.