© Thomson Reuters 2021
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan has elected its chairman and the country's 100th Prime Minister. Fumio Kishida, 64, will assume office on October 4 at a special session in the parliament, where his party enjoys a majority. Next, this appointment is to be approved by Emperor Naruhito. But that's a mere formality. His party members have settled everything already.
Kishida's ascent to the political Olympus of Japan followed the traditional pattern. He is a hereditary politician, as is often the case in present-day Japan, and a third-generation member of the country's parliament. Having failed to enroll at the prestigious Tokyo University, he graduated from another metropolitan Waseda University with a law degree and went in for banking business.
Five years later, in 1987, he started his political career, becoming а secretary to his father who was an MP back then. And in 1993, he was for the first time elected to the lower but key chamber of parliament. Soon Kishida headed the LDP Youth Movement (the Komsomol of its kind) to pave his way up the party hierarchy. Which meant the future prime minister's test run in key positions of the party, the parliament and the government.
In 2007, Kishida became Minister of State for Okinawa and the Northern Territories. Between 2012 and 2017, he headed the Foreign Ministry – quite a long term for Japanese diplomacy, which appears a recognition of his merits by Shinzo Abe as then Prime Minister. After that he headed the LDP Political Council, which implies PM ambitions. Indeed, Kishida soon decided to run in last year's party chairman election, but lost to Yoshihide Suga, who only stuck around for a year.
This time Kishida achieved victory over a powerful and reputable rival? Taro Kono, although only in the second round of elections and in the face of preferences by grass-roots voters. But the party, or rather its members from among the current MPs backed by the most influential Japanese politicians, had their way.
The problem is that Japan will host a parliamentary election in November, with voters to assess the LDP in terms of combating the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic state of affairs during this difficult period, and holding the Olympics in defiance of public opinion. The outcome is controversial – polls show that the level of trust in the cabinet does not exceed 30%, and even a small loss may prove fatal for the person leading the party and the government.
On the other hand, Tokyo would like to have a stable government and avoid a "leapfrog" of PMs like in the first half of the 2010s when a power vacuum was generated every now and then.
This begs the question whether Fumio Kishida is perfect for the role of an electoral and political leader in the present-day challenging context?
Pre-election opinion polls revealed Taro Kono's being the shoo-in with the population. Some 30% of respondents were pulling for him, while Kishida's support level fluctuated around 15%.
In many ways, this reflected both his traditional political style, being more typical of a bureaucrat from politics, and his manner of expressing his views, which appears quite equivocal even by Japanese standards. For instance, after the recent scandal with the contract for building nuclear submarines by the Americans for Australia, Kishida was very cautious in his statements concerning Japan's need for similar systems, stressing that the Japanese submarine fleet's chief weakness is the lack of crews. Priority should be given to better training and recruitment, he stressed.
This approach, as well as Kishida's balanced and moderately conservative program, apparently suits most LDP members. This includes expanded social support, boosted defense potential, and a new eco-friendly power industry while maintaining a certain number of nuclear power plants.
In short, he seems to have established himself as party and government leader owing to his flexibility, taste for compromise, composed behavior, political moderation and accuracy. But the issue of mass support in the parliamentary elections remains open. And Taro Kono is hard on Kishida's heels. This time he lost, but what happens next?
As head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, Kishida is well known in Russia, he has repeatedly met with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as part of Russian-Japanese 2+2 consultations. He certainly also engaged in preparing numerous summits between Putin and Shinzo Abe.
In discussing the Southern Kuril Islands, which Japan deems a corner stone of political fence-mending with Russia, Kishida, as he writes in his book, invariably insisted that the parties should not damage each other's positions based on historical facts, which will allow moving towards compromise in the future. In his opinion, such an approach contributed to pressure alleviation. However, this only indicates Kishida's pattern of conduct, not the essence of his stance on the "island issue".
In general, he won't be up to the islands right now, with a variety of other problems looming, like elections, economics, coronavirus, relations with China, and North Korea with its stepped-up missile launches. Before January, when the new parliament meets for the first time, Kishida is unlikely to touch upon this matter. Even formally. It's been like a handle without a suitcase for Tokyo lately: a dead loss, though very much the right size.