Dr. Jojin V. John, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs
Fumio Kishida, former Foreign Minister of Japan, has emerged victorious in the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) presidential election held on 29 September, 2021 and has become the new Prime Minister of Japan. Kishida’s triumph over the charismatic Taro Kono, a former defense and foreign minister and the minister in the powerful administrative reform ministry in the Suga cabinet, is indicative of LDP’s preference for continuity over reforms, resistance to generational change and above all, the political reincarnation of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the role of ‘shadow shogun’.
The election result also proves that Japan is not yet ready for a female leader. However, this year’s election was an improvement on gender terms, having featured two women candidates out of four – former Internal Affairs Minister SanaeTakaichi and former Communication Minister Seiko Noda.
Unlike many democracies, in Japan, it is not the general election but the leadership election of the LDP that decides the leadership of the country. Since its establishment in 1955, LDP had been in power throughout except for brief periods between 1993-94 and 2009-2012. Considering the fragile state that the Japanese opposition finds themselves in today, for all practical purposes, it makes sense to look into the factional debates and competition within the LDP to understand the dynamics in Japanese politics.
The leadership election took a dramatic turn in early September, following the surprise announcement of PM Suga, that he is not seeking a second term. In the first round of the election in which both LDP Diet members and party workers voted, Kishida came on top with one vote ahead of Kono, while Takaichi and Noda came third and fourth. As no candidate could get a clear majority, the contest went into a run-off between Kishida and Kono, during which the former secured a clear victory.
Four important factors that will have long-term implications for Japanese politics were at play in the election. First, the results meant a victory for the conservative elements of the party over the reformist. While more appealing to the public and the party workers, Kono, who is known to be a maverick in Japanese politics, has not been the favourite of the party’s old guard. He represented a platform that called for reform within the party and radical change in the policy direction of the government. His support for LGBT rights, separate surname for married couples, pension reform and review of the nuclear energy policy is considered ‘too’ reformist even for LDP’s moderate conservatives. On the other hand, Kishida, who stressed stability and continuity without directly challenging the directions set by the ‘Abe/Suga administrations’ over the last decade, had no difficulty getting the backing of party elders.
Initially, after young lawmakers of the party rallied around free voting, it was widely anticipated that it would weaken the power of factions, thus benefitting Kono, who is popular among the new generation lawmakers. Therefore, Kono’s defeat also implies the limitation of the generational change in Japanese politics and the staying power of the factions led by veteran politicians.
Third, election results highlight the political genius of Shinzo Abe and the influence that he will command as the kingmaker in the Kishida administration going forward. By offering his support to the hardliner Takaichi, who was considered as an outlier in the early phase of the campaign, Abe significantly changed the political equations. The move was critical in stopping Kono from gaining a clear majority in the first round and pushing the contest into a run-off.
Fourth, policy debates during the election also reflect LDP’s shift towards a more hard-line approach on defence and national security issues. However, Kishida, who used to call himself a ‘dove’ on foreign and security matters, styled himself as a realist and pragmatist to woo the party hardliners. With Kishida taking a more hawkish approach to China, revision of the constitution and the need for Japan to acquire first-strike capability, Kono appeared to be soft. For Kishida, who assumed power on 4 October during an emergency session of the Diet as the 100th Prime Minister of Japan, the immediate task is to steer the party to victory in the lower house election scheduled for next month. This will be crucial for him to seal his position as the party head and the prime minister for the next three years and to forestall Japan heading into a new phase of political instability.