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An Uncontroversial Consensus Builder Is Poised To Become Japan's Next Leader

Former Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida poses for a portrait following a news  conference Wednesday at Liberal Democratic Party headquarters in Tokyo after his election as party president.
Du Xiaoyi
Pool via AP
Former Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida poses for a portrait following a news conference Wednesday at Liberal Democratic Party headquarters in Tokyo after his election as party president.

SEOUL, South Korea — Fumio Kishida is virtually assured to become Japan's next prime minister next week after the uncontroversial candidate was tapped to lead the country's ruling party.

The vote from the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, is seen as reflecting party insiders' preference for a steady managerial hand and a consensus builder to guide the country as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The LDP dominates Japan's parliament, so Kishida is not expected to face obstacles clinching the premiership when lawmakers select a successor for outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Monday.

Suga announced this month he would not seek reelection after just under a year in office. He lost popularity amid criticism that his handling of the pandemic was inept, that he was oblivious to public opinion in forging ahead with the Olympics during the pandemic, and that he was a wooden and colorless communicator.

No candidate won a majority of the party's vote. Kishida, a former foreign minister, prevailed in a runoff. He had an advantage because he is popular with LDP lawmakers, who outnumbered rank-and-file party members in that vote.

Kishida beat out two female candidates, conservative Sanae Takaichi, and Seiko Noda, who is comparatively liberal within the LDP. He also prevailed against Taro Kono, the vaccine minister who has a reputation as a maverick and reformer.

Kono is one of Japan's most followed politicians on Twitter and was the front-runner in polling ahead of Wednesday's vote.

Kishida has avoided rocking the boat

But "a less popular candidate winning is not new or surprising in the context of the LDP's history," observes Corey Wallace, an expert on Japan's politics at Kanagawa University outside Tokyo. That history, he argues, has pushed Kishida, 64, to speak carefully and avoid rocking his party's boat.

Like his predecessor, Suga, Kishida is not known as a deft communicator. But Wallace argues that it matters somewhat less now, because Kishida faces a less severe crisis, with the country's biggest wave of coronavirus infections drastically reduced. New cases are down about 90% since their peak in August, states of emergency are being lifted, and roughly 58% of the population has been vaccinated, according to government figures.

Kishida does not share Kono's liberal stances on social issues, including supporting same-sex marriage and overhauling social security to help the older poor. "What I think Kishida represents is that there's a postponement of the issues that the LDP is going to have to deal with at some point," Wallace says.

Kishida seemed to acknowledge popular wishes for a kinder, more responsive and socially progressive party.

"I, Fumio Kishida, have a special skill of listening to people," he declared following his win. "I am determined to make an effort toward making a more open LDP and a bright future for Japan together with you all."

He is expected to continue the policies of his predecessors

On economics, Kishida pledged heavy stimulus spending to jolt Japan's economy out of its pandemic malaise. Kishida and his rival candidates have generally stuck to the policies of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, including monetary easing, to try to keep Japan from sliding into deflation.

Kishida has also outlined a foreign policy close to that of Suga and Abe. Japan's growing sense of threat from China has pushed the government to tighten its alliance with the U.S. and other like-minded nations in hedging against China's rise.

Whether Kishida will win the public's support will be decided at the ballot box in November, by which time a general election must be held. Suga was forced to quit as many LDP members felt his performance would cause the party to lose seats in parliament in the election.

Suga joined a string of "revolving door" Japanese prime ministers in recent history who have been forced to quit after one year. And that appears to have motivated party members to pick a candidate they feel stands for continuity and stability over a maverick who might challenge the status quo and trigger controversy.

Chie Kobayashi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.