© EPA-EFE/RONALD WITTEK
Taro Kono, Japan's minister in charge of vaccines, has officially entered the election race after the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. On September 10, Kono announced his intention to run for leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) to become PM after technical sanction from the lower house of parliament.
Kono gains the upper hand in all the public opinion polls. He is consistently supported by some 30 percent of respondents, while the media portray him as the election race frontrunner, but the final say will be up to LDP congress delegates who will choose the new party leader on September 29.
Undoubtedly, being a hereditary politician with a perfect ancestry counts in Kono's favor in the minds of party insiders. His uncle advanced to chairman of Japan's upper house of Parliament; his grandfather Ichiro Kono was a founder and leader of the LDP in the 1950s and 60s, held a number of government posts and is among other things known for having personally jammed the issue of transferring two Southern Kuril Islands to Japan in the course of 1956 negotiations with Nikita Khrushchev. His father Yohei Kono was elected chairman of the LDP in the 1980s, served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and occupied other government positions. However, none of the Konos has ever been prime minister.
The 58-year-old politician himself has passed through all the steps of party and government hierarchy. He ran for country's parliament 8 times from the LDP. Since 2015, he has held several cabinet positions including the posts of defense and foreign affairs ministers. And before that, he was deputy minister in a number of key departments, worked in parliamentary commissions and the party machine. Now Kono combines a number of important government seats, being the Vaccine Minister, the Minister for Administration Reform and the Minister of State for Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs. An ideal СV for a PM candidate, to sum up.
But virtues and shortcomings generally walk hand in hand.
Some Japanese observers believe Kono could have better relations with party heavyweights, with their ability to affect the race. In 2009, he publicly criticized LDP gerontocrats and proposed to get rid of the traditional factional party structure. People do remember it thus far, as well as his political brashness. You'd better seek advice first, mister! Therefore, Kono has embarked upon making conservative statements (like those on the imperial family throne succession), obviously with an eye to his senior party comrades.
However, fellow party members cannot but consider Kono's popularity among ordinary voters. After all, the new prime minister will have to lead the LDP to the parliamentary elections due in late October. Amid people's dissatisfaction with pandemic restrictions and irritation over the Olympic Games that coincided with a rise in COVID cases, much will depend on the one to become the party's front man.
Kono, in contrast to another contender, typical bureaucrat Fumio Kishida, is an obviously forceful personality, sought-after for his vibe, class, eloquence and charm of a cynic. And, apparently, he got this not only from his father and grandfather.
Kono was educated in the United States and graduated from Georgetown University with a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service. During his studies, he attended Madeleine Albright's seminars and volunteered in Democratic Senator Alan Cranston's presidential election campaign of 1984, and then at the headquarters of another Democrat, Richard Shelby. He also passed a training period at the Warsaw School of Economics, and even spent a night in prison after visiting the place of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who was under house arrest back then.
Apparently, all of this was a good practice in public affairs, the lack of which still makes itself felt in Tokyo. After having been employed in business upon his return, Kono, 33, for the first time became deputy of the lower (and key) chamber of the Japanese parliament in Kanagawa Prefecture, his grandfather's political patrimony. From then onward, he has always "been in line for promotion".
Twenty years later, in 2015, Kono already served Minister for Administrative Reform; two years later he took the lead at the Foreign Ministry, having then become Minister of Defense with his own stance on certain issues of Japan's foreign policy and national security.
Despite the 2020 resignation of Shinzo Abe's government, Kono retained his seat in the new Cabinet, and as Minister for Administrative Reform he zealously took up the digitalization of the state service, where fax machines were still used to the utmost.
But the main thing is the vaccination process structuring, which is Kono's responsibility in the government, covering vaccine procurement abroad despite its shortage, logistics, and the entire vaccination campaign. or the time being, half of the country's population has got their second shot against coronavirus.
Announcing his desire to become prime minister, Kono suggested carrying out a ruling party reform, demonstrated willingness to actively promote digitalization and decarbonization, to develop mobile connectivity and jump-start economic growth thereupon. These advanced approaches, as well as Kono's aggressive political style, may attract young voters both at the party congress and in the course of subsequent elections to the country's parliament.
Kono steers clear of foreign policy as yet, although he does apparently have something to say. While serving at the Foreign Ministry, he set a record of visiting 123 countries in two years. When asked by journalists about Japanese-Russian relations, he replied: "As for solving territorial disputes involving the Northern Territories (as the southern Kuril islands are referred to in Japan – ed. note), as well as a peace treaty with Russia, I consider efforts to this effect overwhelmingly important." A stock answer to a stock question that is now on the fringes of Japan's political life. However, he did have talks with Sergey Lavrov, including on this thorny subject. And his grandfather once astonished Khrushchev with his persistence in defending the interests of Japan.
To finally assess Kono's chances of becoming the new Japanese leader, one has to imagine the level of his support within the LDP. Meanwhile, he is now actively engaged in inner-party diplomacy, the results of which are largely dependent on whether his PM ambitions get achieved or not.