TOKYO — In a triumph of elite power brokers over public sentiment, Japan’s governing party on Wednesday elected Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, as its choice for the next prime minister.
By selecting Mr. Kishida, 64, a moderate party stalwart, in a runoff election for the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party, the party’s elites appeared to disregard the public’s preferences and choose a candidate who offered little to distinguish himself from the unpopular departing prime minister, Yoshihide Suga.
Wednesday’s leadership election was the most hotly contested in years. While party leaders usually coalesce around a candidate, this time it was not clear that Mr. Kishida would prevail until the ballots were counted in a second round at a luxury hotel in Tokyo.
Mr. Kishida defeated his chief rival, Taro Kono, an outspoken American-educated maverick, 257 to 170, in a runoff vote dominated by the party’s members of Parliament.
Neither the public nor the rank-and-file members of the party had shown much support for Mr. Kishida. But the conservative wing of the party, which dominates Parliament, preferred Mr. Kishida to Mr. Kono, 58, the minister in charge of Japan’s vaccine rollout.
Japan’s Parliament will hold a special session early next month to officially select the new prime minister. Given that the Liberal Democrats control the legislature, Mr. Kishida’s appointment is all but guaranteed. He will also lead the party in a general election that must be held no later than the end of November.
By going with the safe pair of hands, the party seemed to demonstrate its confidence that it could win in the fall election despite choosing a leader with lackluster public support.
After a year in which voters grew increasingly frustrated with the government’s handling of the pandemic and associated economic woes, the party seems to be counting on the opposition’s weakness and the public’s tolerance for the status quo.
During the campaign, Mr. Kishida appeared to acknowledge some public dissatisfaction as he promised to introduce a “new capitalism” and encourage companies to distribute more of their profits to middle-class workers.
In doing so, he is following a familiar template within the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been adept at adopting policies first introduced by the opposition in order to keep voters assuaged.
The party leadership election was notable in that it was the first time two women vied for the top post. Sanae Takaichi, 60, a hard-line conservative backed by Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, and Seiko Noda, 61, a left-leaning lawmaker who called for more rights for women, the elderly and those with disabilities, were eliminated in the first round.
When people think of preordained elections these days, they tend to look to Russia or Iran or Hong Kong. But in Japan, a parliamentary democracy and the world’s third-largest economy, the same party has governed for all but four years since 1955, and most expect it to win the general election due by the end of November.
So on Wednesday, when the Liberal Democratic Party chooses a successor to Yoshihide Suga, the unpopular prime minister and party chief, it will almost certainly anoint the prime minister who will lead Japan into the new year.
But why, in a country with free elections, where voters have expressed dissatisfaction over the government’s handling of the coronavirus and the Olympics, can the Liberal Democratic Party remain so confident of victory?
The Liberal Democrats try to be all things to all people.
The party formed in 1955, three years after the end of the postwar American occupation of Japan. Yet the United States had a hand in its gestation.
Fearing that Japan, which had a growing left-wing labor movement, might be lured into the Communist orbit, the C.I.A. urged several rival conservative factions to come together.
“They didn’t necessarily like each other or get along, but they were engineered into one mega-party,” said Nick Kapur, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University.
The new Liberal Democratic Party oversaw Japan’s rapid growth during the 1960s and 1970s, which helped to solidify its power. And over the decades, it has morphed into a big tent, as reflected in the candidates seeking the party’s top position this week.
Sanae Takaichi, 60, is a hard-line conservative. Fumio Kishida, 64, is a moderate who talks about a “new capitalism.” Seiko Noda, 61, supports greater rights for women and other groups. Taro Kono, 58, eventually wants to phase out the nuclear power industry.
Japan’s governing-party election was set in motion earlier this month, when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced that he would not seek re-election.
Mr. Suga, 72, assumed the prime ministership after Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, resigned in August 2020 because of ill health. But Japan’s struggles with the coronavirus left Mr. Suga deeply unpopular, and his decision to step aside made him a rare leader of a large, developed country to resign in large part because of the pandemic.
The son of a strawberry farmer and a schoolteacher from the country’s rural north, Mr. Suga had been a behind-the-scenes operator in the Liberal Democratic Party. A deeply uncharismatic leader who struggled to connect with the public, he often looked uncomfortable as a public-facing leader.
In many respects, Mr. Suga’s quick rise and fall could be attributed to timing. When Mr. Abe resigned, the party bosses decided they did not want a bruising leadership contest and quickly aligned behind Mr. Suga, a power broker and chief spokesman for Mr. Abe who was perceived as malleable and willing to carry on his predecessor’s policies.
But public frustrations with Mr. Suga grew as Japan, which had managed the pandemic quite well in 2020, took months to ramp up its vaccination program and left the population weary with continued economic restrictions. Concerns that the government was plowing ahead with the Olympics as cases rose in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures also damaged Mr. Suga’s credibility.
By early last month, Mr. Suga’s approval ratings, which were above 60 percent at the beginning of the year, had plunged below 30 percent.
With his difficulty connecting with the public, Mr. Suga shouldered the blame for the broader failings of the Japanese bureaucracy, which held up vaccinations with requirements for domestic clinical testing and limits on who could administer the vaccines. But he also embodied a larger challenge facing Japan’s government.
“When you have a crisis, you need an adaptable, break-all-the-rules, get-things-done kind of response, and that is a little harder for Japan,” said Sheila A. Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Members of Japan’s ruling party will choose a new leader on Wednesday who is all but guaranteed to win the general election later this year.
The vote inside the Liberal Democratic Party comes at a delicate time for Japan. It is emerging from its pandemic state of emergency, struggling to reinvigorate its economy and navigating an often troubled relationship with neighbors.
Here are more about the issues shaping the campaign.
The vaccine czar became a star.
Mask-wearing and isolation were quickly adopted but vaccination efforts were slow. In January, Defense Minister Taro Kono, an outspoken technocrat with a huge following on Twitter, was put in charge of getting vaccines into people’s arms.
In July, state-of-emergency orders were put in place to slow the spread of the disease. Those measures, and Mr. Kono’s efforts, largely worked. The measures were lifted just before the elections.
Mr. Kono’s performance was, according to Fortune, “a bright spot in an otherwise deteriorating COVID-19 response.” Still, the virus hit the country hard, killing more than 17,000 people in Japan, and batting its economy.
The next prime minister inherits a soft economic recovery.
While Japan seems to be winning its fight against Covid-19, its made less progress toward economic recovery, which has faltered under the long national emergency put in place to curb the virus’s spread.
As growth in the U.S. and China surged back following lockdowns, it faltered in Japan as anxious consumers stayed home rather than brave the delta variant.
Whoever becomes the next prime minister will be faced with the challenge of getting the economy back on track and also figuring out how to deal with the long-term structural issues facing the country: stagnant wages, a growing wealth gap, long-delayed digitalization efforts and a lack of opportunities for women in the work force.
Territorial disputes and bitter memories fuel regional challenges.
Japan’s economic challenges add more stress to its tricky relations with its neighbors, which is mired in territorial disputes and bitter memories of when the country colonized large parts of the region.
The new leader will have to figure out how to dial down tensions while promoting vital trade relations.
The most urgent issue is North Korea, which started the week with the test of what it says is a new hypersonic missile, an action almost tailor-made to drive up pre-election anxiety.
Dealing with the problem is complicated by Japan’s bad relations with the South. Tokyo and Seoul remain at loggerheads over Japan’s willingness to make amends for atrocities committed during World War II.
But the biggest question for the new leader is how they will navigate tricky relations with China, Japan’s biggest trading partner and a potential source of regional instability because of its aggressive posturing on territorial issues and Taiwan, according to policymakers.
This might be the area of biggest contrast between the candidates. On one end of the spectrum is Mr. Kono, who is seen as the most dovish of the bunch, willing to dial down tensions with China and patch up relations with South Korea. On the other end is Ms. Takaichi, an ultraconservative who has expressed a full-throated commitment to standing up to Beijing and an unapologetic attitude toward Japan’s wartime history.
The vote for a new leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan is a staid affair, empty of any of the pomp and ceremony of party congresses in places such as the United States and China.
But the stakes are still high. The election will determine the leadership of the world’s third-largest economy, a country grappling with serious economic and demographic challenges as it cycles through its third prime minister in the year and a half of the pandemic.
The four candidates have spent the last two weeks glad-handing and lobbying for support from their party ahead of today’s secret ballot, hoping to win an absolute majority of the 764 votes up for grabs.
Half of those votes come from rank-and-file party members, who will gather in their local headquarters at 1 p.m. to tally support.
The other half are from the party’s parliamentarians, who will soon assemble in a central Tokyo hotel.
The results of the contest will be announced around 2:20 p.m. But if no one wins an absolute majority — a likely outcome — the top two vote-getters will advance to a second round.
Now things get interesting. In the run off, the power to choose a winner shifts decisively toward the parliamentarians. The rank and file get just 47 votes at this stage, and the outcome will hinge on the political maneuvering and horse trading the candidates carried out in the days leading up to the election as they fought for support from the party’s internal factions.
A final decision will come before 4 p.m. and the winner will hold a news conference shortly after.
Winning the contest will all but guarantee them the premiership, although nothing will be official until Oct. 4, when the Parliament will meet to officially select Japan’s new leader.
Like much of the Asia-Pacific, Japan is slowly emerging from the strictest pandemic restrictions as reports of new cases fall and vaccinations ramp up. And it’s coming just as the world’s third-largest economy prepares to hold general elections by November.
The government will end its state-of-emergency measures on Thursday amid a fall in the number of new daily coronavirus cases and a vaccine rollout that has reached nearly 60 percent of the population, hoping that the move helps to revive the country’s economy.
It will be the first time since April 4 that no part of Japan is under a state of emergency.
The move was announced by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Tuesday, a day before a Liberal Democratic Party vote that will select a leader to succeed him. Mr. Suga said that he would not be extending the emergency measures currently active in 19 prefectures and that they would instead expire at the end of the month, as scheduled.
“Moving forward, we will continue to put the highest priority on the lives and livelihoods of the people,” Mr. Suga said in Parliament on Tuesday afternoon.
He said that the government would “work to continue to achieve both infection control and the recovery of daily life.”
New daily coronavirus cases in Japan have decreased 73 percent over the past two weeks, to an average of 2,378 a day, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. And there has been a sharp improvement in Japan’s vaccine rollout, with close to 60 percent of the population fully inoculated, a rate that exceeds that of the United States and of many other countries around the Pacific Rim.
Under the state of emergency, people were urged to refrain from nonessential outings, and restaurants were asked to close by 8 p.m. and to not serve alcohol. The government plans to ease those restrictions in stages.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, a government minister who is leading Japan’s Covid-19 response, said that serving alcohol would be allowed but that “governors will decide on that appropriately, according to the region’s infection situation.”
The winner of the race to lead Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party is all but assured to be prime minister after the general election. Unlike in past party elections, when leaders unified around a single candidate, there is no clear favorite this time. Here’s a rundown of the three leading contenders.
Polls have found that the public favors Taro Kono, the cabinet minister overseeing Japan’s coronavirus vaccine rollout, by at least two to one. His Twitter following of 2.4 million dwarfs those of his three rivals combined.
But in the back rooms where Japanese political decisions are made, Mr. Kono, 58, is not nearly as well liked. His reputation as the Liberal Democrats’ most outspoken nonconformist and his left-leaning views on social issues put him out of step with the party’s conservative elders.
Many Liberal Democratic members of Parliament consider Fumio Kishida, 64, a moderate with tepid support in the polls, to be the safest choice, according to media tallies of lawmakers.
A Party First
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who resigned last year because of ill health, has backed Sanae Takaichi, 60, a hard-line conservative. Ms. Takaichi, who would be Japan’s first female prime minister, has strong backing from the right wing of the party, but her poll numbers are low. Another woman in the leadership race, Seiko Noda, 61, has little support from either the public or the party.
None of the candidates vying for the top spot in the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan garnered enough votes in the first round, forcing the top two candidates into a runoff.
The two leading candidates are Taro Kono, 58, a government minister who has rankled party leaders on policy issues and garnered large public support, and Fumio Kishida, 64, a moderate with tepid support in the polls. Mr. Kono got 255 votes, versus 256 for Mr. Kishida. The top candidate would have needed 382 votes to win outright.
The two female candidates, Sanae Takaichi, 60, a hard-line conservative, and the more socially progressive Seiko Noda, 61, were eliminated.
Voting in the second round should begin shortly and results will be released later Wednesday.
The four candidates vying to be leader of the governing Liberal Democratic Party in Japan cast their ballots in an election broadcast on several television channels on Wednesday.
Yoshihide Suga, the departing prime minister, joined the candidates, Taro Kono, the minister overseeing Japan’s vaccine rollout, Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, Sanae Takaichi, a staunch ally of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest serving prime minister, and Seiko Noda, a left-leaning member of Parliament.
Each party member in Japan’s two houses of Parliament ascended a stage, wrote their choice for leader on a slip of paper, and dropped their votes into a wooden box. After votes are counted, if none of the candidates exceed 50 percent of the votes, the balloting will go to a second round. The first results should be read at about 2:20 p.m. on Wednesday.