TOKYO – Japan’s parliament elected Fumio Kishida, a former temperate hawk, prime minister on Monday. He will face an economy battered by the pandemic, security threats from China and North Korea, and the leadership of a political party whose popularity is fading ahead of a rapidly approaching crucial national election.
With his party and its coalition partner holding a majority in both houses, Kishida won by a comfortable margin over Yukio Edano, head of Japan’s largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party. Kishida and his new cabinet will be sworn in at a palace ceremony later that day.
He replaces Yoshihide Suga, who stepped down after just a year in office when his support for his government’s handling of the pandemic and insistence on holding the Tokyo Olympics if the virus spread, stepped down.
Kishida is expected to give a political speech in parliament on Friday but plans to dissolve the lower house to hold elections on October 31, Japanese media reported. Observers see the early date as a step to take advantage of the government’s fresh image to garner support.
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Senior MP for the Constitutional Democratic Party, Jun Azumi, criticized Kishida for his plan to dissolve the House of Commons in just over a week. “It’s like a deli, forcing customers to buy without being able to sample.”
A former foreign minister, Kishida, 64, was formerly known as moderate but became more restrictive on security and more conservative on gender equality and other issues, apparently to show loyalty and support to influential conservatives in the Liberal Democratic Party to win. He is deeply rooted in the conservative establishment, and his victory in last week’s vote to replace Suga as party leader was a choice for continuity and stability rather than change.
Kishida replaced all but two of Suga’s 20 cabinet members and 13 will hold ministerial posts for the first time, according to the roster announced by new Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno. Most of the posts went to powerful factions that voted for Kishida in the party election. There are only three women, compared to two in Suga’s government.
Seasoned MP Seiko Noda, one of four candidates vying for the party leadership race, will become the minister responsible for the country’s fertility decline and local revitalization. Another woman, Noriko Horiuchi, became vaccination minister, replacing Taro Kono, second in the race for party leadership.
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, the younger brother of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have taken on rising tensions in the region, including around Taiwan.
Kishida supports stronger security ties between Japan and the US and partnerships with other like-minded democracies in Asia, Europe and the UK, in part to counter China and nuclear-armed North Korea.
Japan is facing increasing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea, which last month tested ballistic missiles that can hit targets in Japan. Kishida also faces deteriorating relationships with his U.S. ally South Korea on history issues, even after reaching an agreement with Seoul in 2015 to resolve a dispute over the issue of women sexually abused by the Japanese military during World War II became.
An urgent task at home will be to reverse his party’s declining popularity, hurt by Suga’s perceived self-importance regarding the pandemic and other issues. Kishida is expected to deliver a political speech later this week before dissolving the lower house of parliament ahead of the general election, which must take place by the end of November.