TOKYO — Japan's former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida won the governing party leadership election on Wednesday and is set to become the next prime minister, facing the imminent task of addressing a pandemic-hit economy and ensuring a strong alliance with Washington to counter growing regional security risks.
Kishida replaces outgoing party leader Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is stepping down after serving only one year since taking office last September.
As new leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Kishida is certain to be elected the next prime minister on Monday in parliament, where his party and its coalition partner control both houses.
In his victory speech, Kishida vowed to tackle Japan's "national crises" including COVID-19, the economy battered by the pandemic and the declining population and birthrate, while pursuing "important issues related to Japan's future" through a vision of "a free and open Indo-Pacific" that counters China's assertiveness in the region.
Kishida beat popular vaccinations minister Taro Kono in a runoff after finishing only one vote ahead of him in the first round where none of the four candidates, including two women, was able to win a majority.
His 257-170 landslide win in the second round showed a consensus-building Kishida garnered more support from party heavyweights who apparently chose stability over change advocated by Kono, who is known as something of a maverick and a reformist.
Japanese former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida speaks after being announced the winner of the Liberal Democrat Party leadership election in Tokyo Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021. (Carl Court/Pool Photo via AP)
The new leader is under pressure to change the party's high-handed reputation worsened by Suga, who angered the public over his handling of the pandemic and insistence on holding the Summer Olympics in Tokyo despite the surging infections.
The long-ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party desperately needs to quickly turn around plunging public support ahead of lower house elections coming within two months.
During the past year, Kishida said he heard from many voters complaining they were being ignored. "I felt our democracy is in a crisis," he said in his speech. "I, Fumio Kishida, have a special skill of listening to people. I am determined to make an effort toward making a more open LDP and a bright future for Japan together with you all."
The 64-year-old former foreign minister was once seen as an indecisive moderate. Lately, however, he has shifted to a security and diplomatic hawk as he sought support from influential conservatives to win the party election.
Kishida has called for a further increase in Japan's defense capability and budget, and vowed to stand up to China in tensions over self-ruled Taiwan that China claims as part of its territory, and Beijing's crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.
On the economy, Kishida has called for a "new capitalism" of growth and distribution to narrow income gaps between the rich and the poor that have widened under Japan's longest-serving former leader Shinzo Abe, and only worsened during the pandemic.
He also pledged to promote clean energy technology to turn climate change measures into growth and proposed a generous economic recovery package.
Overall, little change is expected in key diplomatic and security policies under the new leader, said Yu Uchiyama, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo.
Kishida also supports close Japan-U.S. security ties and partnerships with other like-minded democracies in Asia and Europe, in part to counter China and nuclear-armed North Korea.
Japan s former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, center, puts on his face mask as he leaves the stage after winning the Liberal Democrat Party leadership election in Tokyo Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021. (Carl Court/Pool Photo via AP)
Wednesday's vote was seen as a test of whether the party can move out of Abe's shadow. His influence in government and party affairs has largely muzzled diverse views and shifted the party to the right.
Kishida has called for party reforms by limiting terms for executive positions, but is seen as a choice who could prolong an era of unusual political stability amid fears that Japan could return to "revolving door" leadership.
"Concern is not about individuals but stability of Japanese politics," Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told a telephone briefing ahead of the vote. "It's about whether or not we are entering a period in Japanese politics of instability and short-term prime ministership," he said. "It makes it very hard to move forward on agenda."
Green said voters will be watching if Kishida is easily swayed by power politics in his party or if he is attuned to the public.
Suga is leaving only a year after taking office as a pinch hitter for Abe, who suddenly resigned over health problems, ending his nearly eight-year leadership, the longest in Japan's constitutional history.
Kishida lost to Suga in the 2020 party leadership race, which was a done deal determined by party heavyweights even before the vote. A third-generation politician from Hiroshima, Kishida has a reputation among his fellow lawmakers as polite and honest.
He was first elected to parliament in 1993. An advocate for nuclear disarmament, he escorted former President Barack Obama during his 2016 visit to Hiroshima, the city that was obliterated together with Nagasaki in the U.S. atomic bombings in the closing days of World War II.
As foreign minister under Abe, he struck a 2015 agreement with South Korea to resolve a bilateral row over the issue of World War II women who were sexually abused by Japan's wartime military — part of legacy that still hampers relations between the two countries.
The banker-turned-lawmaker enjoys drinking sake and is a staunch supporter of his hometown professional baseball team, Hiroshima Carp.