Fumio Kishida, the new prime minister of Japan, is known for hard work and moderate views. One analyst calls him “Mr Status Quo”; another says “mutable, even malleable”. A third says he has “no track record of major failure”. These are qualities one might welcome in a potential son-in-law, but if Kishida is to succeed in the top job, he will also need to display a steely grip, a bond with the public and a clear vision for the future of his country.
Kishida, a former foreign minister, won this week’s contest to succeed Yoshihide Suga as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. He will therefore become, by default, the prime minister of Japan. He won by portraying himself as a safe pair of hands and appealing to the powerful organised factions in the LDP. His main rival, Taro Kono, had better poll ratings with the public and won more votes from rank-and-file LDP members, but the support of Kishida’s parliamentary colleagues carried him to victory.
The very safety and solidity of Kishida makes him, in some sense, a risky choice. There is a parallel with his predecessor. Like Kishida, Suga was the candidate of competence, consensus and continuity. He won comfortably with the support of parliamentary colleagues. But Suga, it turned out, lacked a vision or the talent to sell it. When his patchy handling of the coronavirus pandemic called Suga’s competence into question, his support among the public collapsed.
Kishida’s first task is to win a general election, which must be held by the end of November. Japan’s opposition has been in disarray since 2012 and it does not look like a potential government. A newly appointed Kishida therefore has the chance to record a solid victory, giving him a public mandate, and putting him on surer footing than Suga ever was. A further test will come in upper house elections next year, when the public may feel freer to register a protest vote.
Should Kishida win the general election, the question then becomes his purpose. Japan is a highly successful nation with big issues: the world’s most elderly population, in a stagnating economy, dependent on coal for power, and confronted by the might of a rising China. It needs a leader equal to the challenge.
Kishida has said he will make no immediate change to the fiscal and monetary stimulus he inherits from former prime minister Shinzo Abe. That is welcome. Under Abe, Japan recorded its best growth and employment performance for several decades. Kishida should recognise that the only way to control Japan’s large public debt is via a robust, growing economy. Less encouraging is Kishida’s objection to “neoliberalism”, if by that he means opposition to reforms such as postal privatisation, rather than a dislike of rising inequality.
Abroad, Kishida is set to follow what is now the established consensus in Japan: close alliance with the US and hawkishness on China. It would be welcome, though, if he could match the vigour of Abe’s diplomacy, which made Tokyo a player on the world stage, rather than merely a passenger in the US alliance. Climate change is one area where Suga made a difference: Kishida should keep and implement the targets his predecessor set for carbon reduction by 2030 and 2050.
Nobody in Japan, save factional politicians, benefits from the succession of weak, rotating leaders the country has often had. Above all, therefore, Kishida needs to prove himself as a leader the country can get behind. An early measure of his success will be whether we are back for another leadership election in 12 months’ time.