When a senior politician from the ruling party in Japan pretends to listen to voters, you know something is wrong. Before Fumio Kishida assumed the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on September 29 – while also vouching that he would become the country’s next prime minister – he seemed determined to prove that he did not. was not out of step with the audience.
He organized Zoom calls with restaurateurs and tourism businesses that had been emptied by the pandemic. On Twitter and YouTube, to an audience of thousands, he answered questions about child poverty, regional diplomacy and the hit animated series Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. On September 25, he joined a Instagram Live session with Eriko Imai, first-year lawmaker in his party and former J-pop starlet. A little over a month ago, in front of the television cameras, Kishida held up a little worn notebook which he said he had carried away to document his meetings with families and small businesses.
“My talent is to listen well to others,” Kishida told reporters at a press conference after defeating three rivals for the LDP presidency. “I want to listen to what many of our citizens have to say about our problems and treat each one carefully. “
This is not a typical sound sample from the LDP machine. The party has its own Byzantine dynamic (in the form of competing factions), chooses its own brokers of influence, and sets its own conservative agenda, mostly behind closed doors. For eight years and nine months, under the old Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his handpicked successor, Yoshihide Suga, what the public wanted has rarely been a priority. (Kishida easily defeated Abe’s choice for LDP chairman Sanae Takaichi, former Minister of Home Affairs and Communications.)
Not anymore. With voters growing dissatisfaction with its decision to go ahead with the Tokyo Olympics and its botched response to the pandemic, the LDP-led government is now in a precarious position. According to the law, the party must call a general election by November. As prime minister, Suga’s dismal public approval ratings have raised concern among PLD officials about the possibility of electoral losses and an erosion of the ruling bloc’s majority – hence the upheaval that brought Kishida to power. On October 4, parliament will vote on Kishida as the PLD’s choice for a new prime minister. The majority of the PLD-led bloc in the upper and lower chambers make their confirmation little more than a formality.
Kishida’s challenge is to convince voters ahead of the election that he can restart the LDP – without going so far as to alienate the factions led by veterans of the party that supported him. Third-generation politician from Hiroshima who won his father’s seat in parliament in 1993, 64-year-old Kishida is widely regarded by the party’s old guard as a safe choice: an experienced and sincere team player, albeit somewhat bland, whose opinions make it unlikely to set a radical new course. He held ministerial posts – he was the second longest-serving foreign minister since World War II – and key positions in the party. In 2016 he helped organize the visit of Barack Obama at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the first in the city by a sitting US leader.
Many of Kishida’s political ideas are classics of the PLD: closer ties to the United States, lower trade barriers, and a more hawkish posture to counter China’s assertion. He’s fiercely against nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered submarines, but questions whether married couples should be legally allowed to have separate last names. Yet on a small scale, Kishida has shown a willingness to break away from his predecessors. Instead of focusing on big spending, low interest rates and labor market reforms that were supposed to – but failed – to get the economy going, he favors “redistribution of wealth”. In his book 2020, Vision Kishida: from division to cooperation, he wrote on reducing income disparities, increasing wages and expanding government support for education and housing. He pledged to deliver an economic aid program worth “tens of billions of yen” (hundreds of billions of pounds) for people who struggled during the pandemic.
Kishida has set himself the electoral goal of defending the majority of the ruling bloc in parliament. With its junior coalition partner, Komeito, the LDP controls 139 of 245 seats to the upper room and 304 of the 465 places lower house. Barring some scandal or unforgivable blunder, the LDP is unlikely to be ousted. (In the past 66 years, this has only happened twice, for short periods.) None of the opposition parties offers a convincing alternative. Voters do not have the option of choosing who will become prime minister, but they could still express their dissatisfaction with the LDP by weakening the party’s grip on power.
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As Prime Minister, Kishida has his work cut out for him. He is not the type to make exciting speeches, but he needs to energize the base of the PLD. Courting a younger generation of Japanese voters in their 20s and 30s could make a difference, but they are among the least likely to vote. On social media, Kishida seems to be finding her voice, posting her meals on the fly to hundreds of thousands of followers as well as her serious attempts to convey to the public that the LDP now cares about the issues that matter to people. For voters, there is an element of faith involved in going with Kishida: They should believe the LDP is ready for the change its new leader says it is pushing.
[See also: How the Olympics have thrown the future of Japan’s prime minister into doubt]