Fumio Kishida, the newly-elected leader of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), will take the helm of an increasingly troubled nation. After months of fraught leadership battles between factions of his own party, in a victory that only seemed possible because he faced a much weaker opponent, he will attempt to reverse sliding support for his party, lower the national debt, and revitalize the economy. He has the support of almost two-thirds of LDP lawmakers, and succeeded his fellow former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in his bid to lead the LDP.
Japan’s political center of gravity has shifted dramatically in recent years — to the right — and Mr. Kishida will have to find a way to reinvigorate the LDP’s support within the changing landscape. So while Mr. Kishida has never won an election, it was not for a lack of campaigning; as foreign minister, he served as a foreign-policy spokesperson for Japan’s embattled prime minister, Mr. Abe.
Mr. Kishida will have his work cut out for him: Even with support of Mr. Abe’s side, his new party is beginning to look listless and directionless. The resignation of the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, has highlighted the discord in the party, and there are concerns that this is emblematic of a changing of the guard.
As much as you might love Yoshihide Suga, the fact remains that he has no political experience. The main challenger to Mr. Kishida, The Rev. Akie Abe, is a seasoned politician who is respected by many. Mr. Abe was not an ally of Mr. Kishida’s, especially as national security has risen to prominence in Japanese politics, and Ms. Abe’s political knowledge is less well-known outside of Japan. And with his career resting on a few decisions in the most controversial international crisis of his tenure, Mr. Abe will be watching the incoming prime minister’s every move. This has been a very complex campaign for Japanese voters, and Mr. Kishida will have to manage a changing landscape, not only as a politician, but as a man as well.
Mr. Kishida will have to find a way to lead an increasingly weakened LDP out of its doldrums, and this week will present him with a number of high-stakes decisions. He must decide how to handle the scandal surrounding an attempted cover-up of sexual abuse allegations from former members of the upper house of parliament. Mr. Kishida has called for a “crisis summit” to figure out the fates of these public figures, and he has said he will wait for a “complete political dialogue” before making a decision. It will be difficult for Mr. Kishida to launch an honest investigation into what, if any, wrongdoing may have taken place and suggest that the festering scandal will not be ignored.
He must also try to help calm Japan’s ever-growing tensions with North Korea, something he has openly noted he lacks expertise in. In one of his few candor statements, Mr. Kishida said: “I am well aware that I have little background in diplomatic relations with Korea, but I must do everything possible to eradicate the possibility of any war in which Japan would be caught on the wrong side.”
But perhaps most importantly, Mr. Kishida will have to establish a much-needed ground game if he is to restore any credibility to the party. An election is expected sometime in late October or early November, but neither of the ruling parties — the Liberal Democrats or the Liberal Party of Japan — has won an election since 2009. Mr. Kishida and his team must make an effort to regain what was once the heart of Japanese politics. But it may be a tall order.