[News analysis] Kishida's factional politics win out over popular appeal

Posted on : 2021-09-30 18:01 KST Modified on : 2021-09-30 18:01 KST
He bested his opponent, Taro Kono, whom opinion polls showed holding an overwhelming lead in support among the Japanese public, with the help of the “Hosoda wing” of the party
Fumio Kishida stands and waves to the crowd after being elected president of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party on Wednesday. (AFP/Yonhap News)
Fumio Kishida stands and waves to the crowd after being elected president of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party on Wednesday. (AFP/Yonhap News)

Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) elected a new leader on Wednesday in a contest that effectively chose the country’s 100th prime minister — a decision based not on the sentiments of ordinary Japanese people, but factional dynamics in the party and the lingering influence of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The new face of the LDP heading into November’s House of Representatives election will be former party Policy Research Council Chair Fumio Kishida, someone who enjoys relatively low levels of popular support in Japan. The question of how many parliamentary seats the LDP retains is expected to have a far-reaching impact on Japanese politics and South Korea-Japan relations going forward.

The LDP presidential election was held Wednesday to determine the party’s future after the administrations of Abe and Yoshihide Suga. It began at 1 pm when LDP election committee chair Takeshi Noda declared the election’s start.

For the election, the names of the LDP’s 382 lawmakers were called out in Japanese alphabetic order, at which point each of them went to the podium to hand their name card to the election committee members and receive a ballot to fill in with the name of a candidate.

Abe attracted some attention when he proceeded to the podium as the third name called.

The outcome of the election was more or less decided shortly after the first round of voting results.

Minister for Administrative Reform and Regulatory Reform Taro Kono, whom opinion polls showed holding an overwhelming lead in support among the Japanese public, drew 169 votes in a party member and supporter vote, which provided a reflection of public opinion. But in the vote among Diet members, he picked up a lower-than-expected 86, bringing his total to 255 votes.

In contrast, his rival Kishida won just 110 votes among party members, but 146 among Diet members, for a total of 256.

The question then became the fate of the 114 Diet member votes picked up by the third-place candidate, former Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Sanae Takaichi.

Most of her votes are believed to have come from the 96-member “Hosoda wing” of the party —the LDP’s single biggest faction and one in which Abe holds major influence. Abe had signaled his support for Takaichi, a far-right figure who declared plans to double the Japanese national defense budget and pay respects at Yasukuni Shrine.

The Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported Wednesday that Kishida and Takaichi’s respective camps met on Tuesday evening and “agreed to cooperate against Kono.” This meant they would throw their support behind Kishida, who had declared his intention to carry on Abe’s approach, over Kono, who had pledged reforms.

The masked Kono could be seen staring forward without moving a muscle, as though sensing his defeat.

As LDP president, Kishida is expected to carry on the larger framework of Abe’s approach while attempting some partial changes. In particular, analysts expect him to stick to the same approaches on North Korea and China — which would have direct impacts on the Korean Peninsula — and to attempt changes in relatively less sensitive areas of economic policy.

In past remarks, Kishida has said the targets of his North Korea policy would be to “call for the complete abandonment of nuclear and missile development and bring about the return of all Japanese abductees” in North Korea. It’s the same course pursued over the past nine years by Abe and his successor Suga.

Kishida has also accused China of having “ambitions of spreading authoritarian regimes around the world” and declared that “you have to think about relations as a neighboring country, but you also need to say what has to be said.”

Opportunities for improving South Korea-Japan relations appear unlikely to arise anytime soon. Commenting on relations with Seoul, Kishida has said, “There needs to be dialogue, but the ball is in South Korea’s court,” referencing that South Korea would need to take action over court rulings holding Japanese companies responsible for compensating victims of wartime forced labor mobilization.

This stood in contrast with Kono, who signaled his willingness to adopt a dialogue-based solution to the biggest issue between the two sides — Japan’s controls on exports of certain materials to South Korea — while treating them separately from historical matters.

Another issue is the fact that both sides have major events coming up on their respective political calendar, with a South Korean presidential election in March 2022 and a Japanese general election in November of this year. If they do manage to make headway toward improving relations, the earliest that is likely to happen would be May of next year, once the South Korean presidential election is over.

But Kishida is not completely without areas where he could set himself apart with changes.

Remarking on Abe’s active efforts to amend Japan’s constitution, he noted that there has been “scarcely any progress made with discussions in parliament.” It’s a message that analysts read as signaling that he thinks such discussions are premature.

In comments about the “Abenomics” approach to economic policy, he has stressed the need for a “new perspective,” explaining that “you also need to think about distribution.”

Kishida is expected to immediately start preparing for the House of Representatives election once he has set up his Cabinet. The current House of Representatives reaches the end of its term on Oct. 21, with a new election to take place in November.

With the LDP currently holding 275 Diet seats (59%), how many seats it manages to hold on to is going to be a key question.

Currently, 126 Diet members, or 46%, are in their first through third term. The younger lawmakers have weaker regional bases, which makes them heavily dependent on the LDP president as the “face of the election.”

With a strong enough showing, Kishida could grow his control within the party and attempt a shift away from the “Abe course” earlier than expected.

By Kim So-youn, Tokyo correspondent

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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