TOKYO — Fumio Kishida, Japan’s former foreign minister, is set to become the country’s new prime minister after winning his party’s leadership vote on Wednesday.
Kishida, 64, is well regarded among senior figures in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which controls a majority in parliament, and was the first to throw his hat in the ring to contest the top job. He will become prime minister on Monday following a special parliamentary session, replacing Yoshihide Suga, who decided to step down after just one year in power amid plummeting popularity over his handling of Japan’s coronavirus response.
As he succeeds Suga, Kishida faces challenges such as the pandemic, a stagnant economy and a region increasingly dominated by China. But his first order of business will be preparing to fight a general election in the fall, which the LDP is expected to win.
Among Kishida’s banner platforms is decreasing the income gap, through redistributing wealth and reining in the market-oriented policies that were the core of the economic agenda of Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe.
In his first comments as the newly selected leader, Kishida promised the “rebirth” of the LDP, promising to restore the trust and confidence of voters who feel unheard by the party leaders.
“I heard that many were saying that their voices weren’t heard by the government and that they couldn’t trust the government,” Kishida said.
He added that he will focus on the country’s coronavirus response and economic recovery.
As leader of the longtime ruling party, Kishida is expected to continue the foreign policy approach that Suga and Abe had championed. That includes an emphasis on the U.S.-Japan alliance, commitment to a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” and solidifying partnerships with other members of the “Quad” group of like-minded countries to build influence and counter China’s growing clout in Asia.
“From a security standpoint, diplomatic standpoint, I don’t think we’re going to see much change,” said Jeffrey Hornung, an expert in Japanese security and foreign policy at the Washington-based RAND Corporation.
Any marginal difference perceived by Washington likely will be in Kishida’s leadership style compared to his predecessors, and he will still be viewed as someone who would value the U.S.-Japan alliance, Hornung said. Of interest to Washington will be how Japan’s more vocal embrace of Taiwan evolves under Kishida and whether he will take steps to improve relations with South Korea, Hornung said.
As foreign minister, Kishida played a critical role in negotiating the landmark 2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea to resolve their dispute over the issue of wartime sex slaves. The agreement has since fallen apart and the relationship between the two countries is once again at a low point.
Like many influential Japanese politicians, Kishida was born into a political dynastic family. His father and grandfather were both politicians in Japan. As a native and representative of Hiroshima, he is a vocal advocate of nuclear nonproliferation.
The party election is usually a sleepy affair where results are predetermined by the party’s elders. But Wednesday’s four-way contest was unpredictable and drew an unusual amount of public interest, despite the fact that the public had no vote in the election.
Kishida’s victory illustrated the power of the party’s elite leaders. Kishida won after a runoff against Taro Kono, Japan’s vaccine chief, whose support among the younger members helped carry him to the runoff round. Both were considered the top two candidates.