October 4, 2021

Asia

JAPAN: New PM Kishida calls 31 October election

BY James Brady

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  • New Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has called the Lower House election for 31 October, in a move designed to capitalize on his initial poll bounce and the current low Covid-19 case numbers.
  • The new cabinet sees both continuity and change, with Taro Aso being replaced after almost nine years at Finance but Foreign Minister Motegi and Defense Minister Kishi remaining in post.
  • However, Aso and ex prime minister Shinzo Abe have secured key positions for many of their allies, and the party’s ascendant right wing will influence the economic and foreign policy agendas of the new prime minister going forward.

Election prospects

Establishment conservative choice Fumio Kishida was voted into office as Japan’s 100th prime minister at a specially convened Diet session on 4 October, following his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential race victory over popular progressive Taro Kono on 29 September, in what was in essence a triumph for faction leaders over rank-and-file members. Prime Minister Kishida’s first order of business was to announce the dissolution of the Diet on 14 October for a Lower House election that will be held on Sunday, 31 October. The low-polling opposition parties may be left feeling somewhat tricked, as most prior indications had been for a November poll. For the LDP, the Halloween election should be a treat, as it will take full advantage of the new administration’s likely initial poll bounce, and occur before another wave of Covid-19 cases could take hold and potentially reduce the government’s popularity.

Even though the LDP may lose a few seats from their current high-water mark, they are still strong favorites to be returned to government together with long-term coalition partner Komeito. Come November, Kishida won’t have time to rest on his laurels as he aims to pass a new round of economic stimulus measures through a supplementary budget, set to exceed JPY 20-30tn (USD 180-270bn). His government will consecutively have to work on the regular budget for FY2022, the details of which are usually finalized in late fall. A general election victory would leave Kishida in about the most favorable set of circumstances available to an incoming prime minister, with almost a full 3-year term as LDP president still to serve, and only one national election to navigate in that period–next summer’s poll for half of the seats in the Upper House, for which his party will again be favorites. The prime minister would as always have discretion to call a snap election during that period if circumstances looked favorable.

New wine in an old jug

Kishida has finalized his new cabinet, giving an indication of future policy direction. The line-up presents a slightly more diverse face than Suga’s team. The 21 ministers include 13 holding office for the first time and eight in their 40s or 50s, though only three women (up from two under Suga). There will be continuity in foreign affairs, where Toshimitsu Motegi will remain in post under a third prime minister, and at defense under Nobuo Kishi. The most notable departure is that of octogenarian faction boss Taro Aso from the finance portfolio he has held since late 2012, with Shunichi Suzuki taking over. As promised during the campaign, Kishida has also created a new cabinet portfolio for economic security, and the relatively youthful Harvard graduate Takayuki Kobayashi takes up the mantle of dealing with issues like supply chain security in the context of a more assertive China. The only leadership competitor to get a cabinet berth is Seiko Noda, who will be the minister responsible for addressing the declining birth rate and gender equality, both key issues for the country’s long-term social and economic prospects.

With the presidential vote demonstrating that the right wing of the party is now clearly in the ascendancy and Kishida owing his position to support from other party faction leaders, the Abe-Aso axis is expected to exert ongoing influence on the new administration’s policy agenda. Kishi is Abe’s brother (adopted and raised by a relative), Suzuki is Aso’s brother-in-law, and new Cabinet Chief Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno is a close Abe aide in the Hosoda faction. Similarly, among the new LDP party executive appointments, Abe disciple Sanae Takaichi will get the role of election strategy chief, while the influential number 2 position of Secretary-General goes to Akira Amari, a close ally of Abe and Aso. As such, we expect a broad continuation of previous policy lines, including the Abenomics economic growth framework and 2% inflation target, albeit with greater focus on inequality issues, and an increasingly muscular defense deterrence posture towards China, coupled with continued close cooperation with the United States, the Quad, and European allies.

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