The selection of Kishida Fumio as Japan’s new prime minister, judged by his campaign rhetoric, has the potential to be a turning point in post-war Japanese politics at first glance. By announcing his new cabinet on October 4, Kishida, as the new leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Japan, embarked on a more âcautious and tolerantâ policy, a sign of his willingness to move away from the leadership style of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo (2012-20), sometimes criticized as intolerant of dissent and too centralizing.
Ambitious, Kishida pledged to promote “a new form of capitalism” that embraces both growth and redistribution, with an emphasis on promoting equality and improving social well-being, while by revitalizing democracy at home and abroad through enhanced âtrust and compassionâ and close cooperation. with key security partners, such as the United States.
A natural listener with a reputation for modesty, courtesy, and enthusiasm for teamwork (reflecting Kishida’s love of baseball), the new prime minister is for his critics bland, unassuming, and charismatic. Coming from the more progressive and liberal wing of the PLD, Kishida’s political models include Ikeda Hayato (prime minister 1960-64) and Miyazawa Kiichi (prime minister 1991-1993). The three men’s political and personal ties are linked to Hiroshima – a city with a unique past as the victim of an atomic bombing, which perhaps explains the tendency of its politicians to avoid the more nationalist and conservative approach of other personalities of the PLD. Kishida’s economic policy, echoing Ikeda’s iconic ‘income doubling’ approach in the 1960s, aims to advance the interests of the Japanese middle class and offset worsening wealth and income inequalities. that has plagued the country for the past 30 years.
To underline his reformist credentials, Kishida brought in new, younger politicians into the cabinet. Thirteen of the 20 members have had no previous experience as cabinet ministers and many have served only three terms as representatives of the LDP in the Diet, the National Assembly – a marked departure from the convention according to which the appointees have generally been elected no less than five times. . As the LDP presidential candidate, Kishida argued his progressive credentials, calling for strict term limits for party officials and hinting at a willingness to tackle the problem of financial corruption that has undermined trust. of the public in the Suga and Abe administrations.
However, it is not known whether Kishida will have the political space to promote reform. His success in the LDP leadership race hinged on the support of more conservative party heavyweights, including Abe, former Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro and Amari Akira, a former economy minister Kishida chose for the powerful post of party secretary general. These so-called “three A’s” were united in their desire to thwart the leadership ambitions of former Defense and Foreign Minister Kono Taro, who was popular with grassroots members of the party and, above all, the General public. Until a few weeks ago Kono’s victory seemed assured, but his reluctance to rely on his party leaders and his reputation as a maverick – in favor of a guaranteed pension, dependency reduced to nuclear power, increased immigration, greater gender equality and women’s inheritance rights. to the monarchy – sparked a concerted âstop Konoâ campaign orchestrated by Abe as the party’s oldest and most influential statesman.
Will Kishida remain indebted to Abe and the Old Guard? Some of his key appointments – not just Amari, but also the selection of Aso as LDP vice president, and Takaichi Sanae (whom Abe strongly supported in the first ballot for the LDP presidency) in as Chairman of the LDP’s Main Political Affairs Research Council. (PARC) aim to build support for the party’s powerful factions. However, other decisions, including the choice of Matsuno Hirokazu as chief secretary to the cabinet (apparently in opposition to Abe’s preference for Hagiuda Koichi) as well as the selection of Kobayashi Takayuki to head a new ministry of economic security, foreshadow greater independence on the part of Kishida. The new prime minister seeks not only to welcome the old and new faces of government, but also to strengthen the party as a balancing influence against an overly strong cabinet.
On key signing issues, Kishida appears to have softened some of his reformist views in recent days, especially when it comes to dealing with publicly sensitive corruption issues – a topic opposition parties are already grasping as a topic. vulnerability with which to attack the government. . Amari’s past as economy minister has been clouded by allegations of financial irregularities that prompted his resignation about five years ago, and Kishida’s selection of Obuchi Yuko as the organization’s president. of the party and the campaign headquarters is equally controversial, given its past involvement in accounting misconduct.
Despite these vulnerabilities, Kishida, contrary to his reputation for being overly cautious, acted swiftly by calling for the dissolution of the lower house on October 14 and an election on October 31. Cleverly, Kishida recognizes the importance of receiving a mandate from the electorate and no doubt hopes to challenge the opposition parties who were banking on the November elections and who will therefore have little time to coordinate their campaigns. The latest opinion polls give Kishida a 59% approval rating – significantly higher than the 38% rating for outgoing Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, but relatively low for a new leader. However, the main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, with only 11% support, is far behind the PLD. Momentum and novelty can help Kishida market herself to the electorate, especially through exciting innovations such as the creation of a new âhealth crisis management agencyâ.
Kishida has also been wise to ensure continuity in key government portfolios – including foreign and defense policy – by keeping ministerial incumbents, respectively, Motegi Toshimitsu and Kishi Nobuo in place. Kishida’s own experience (four and a half years as Minister of Foreign Affairs) will be very useful for him to maintain a resolute position vis-Ã -vis China, whether by reaffirming the Quad process and the Japanese alliance. United States, or by adopting enhanced missile defense to counter China’s expanding military might or preemptive strikes to counter threats from a nuclear North Korea. Kishida even publicly flirted with the idea of ââa more militant Japanese stance in Taiwan and endorsed the idea of ââa constitutional review – a key issue in identity politics with right-wing PLD members.
Kishida’s approach, however, may be more nuanced than it appears at first glance. As for China, for example, he did not outright reject Beijing’s offer to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and his insistence on economic security will include without any doubts the opportunities as well as the challenges of engaging with China, given Japan’s dependence on the Chinese market for trade and investment opportunities.
In the management of a complex political file, incorporating both domestic and foreign policy, coordination will be essential and here the prognosis is not particularly promising. Raising the wages of public sector workers (especially those in health-related services), providing generous childcare services, and reducing the rural-urban divide are attractive headlines, but Kishida will be faced with the continuing question of how to pay for these initiatives without increasing indirect costs. taxation, while avoiding increasing the government’s high public debt.
Japan’s response to COVID-19 revealed a sclerotic decision-making structure and the consensual style of government of Kishida, a weak and inexperienced cabinet beholden to senior party officials, and the instinct to establish time-consuming committees as a way to deal with a series of critical issues are unlikely to provide a quick solution to these immediate challenges. It is also unclear whether Kishida has a clear vision for the country’s immediate future. Much of his political innovation would be the result of some of the prime minister’s young advisers (including rising stars such as Murai Hideki and Kihara Seiji), but implementation will require Kishida’s unwavering determination to prioritize these different new policies and for that he will also need a strong and experienced cabinet secretary. Matsuno Hirokazu is a relatively unknown face and it seems unlikely that he has the experience or independent influence to coordinate effectively. Moreover, with Kishida’s progressive rivals, notably Kono, completely excluded from the cabinet, it is difficult to see how the prime minister can build an effective intra-party coalition capable of implementing a truly innovative policy.
Campaigning (whether for party leadership or in a general election) is very different from governing. For the new prime minister – who appears to be a veritable dove disguised as a hawk – setting a clear direction for his administration may reveal the ambiguities and deliberate contradictions that allowed him to build a winning coalition, but which will increasingly be subject to scrutiny. as he builds his administration.