Abe’s legacy looms large for Kishida, the next Japanese prime minister

Shinzo Abe led Japan for nine years, longer than all of the country’s other post-World War II leaders. He served as prime minister between 2012 and 2020, when he resigned because of ill health, and before that in 2006 and 2007. Although it wasn’t quite as long as Angela Merkel’s reign, Abe has left an important legacy for his country and international relationships.

Now, for Japan at least, it is proving hard to move on. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which governs Japan, announced Wednesday that Fumio Kishhida (ex-foreign minister) was its chosen president. Kishida, who will be taking over as the prime minister in Japan’s next week, is likely to represent the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the next elections. The LDP has been the dominant party postwar Japan since 1945.

Though he had promised a “rebirth” of the LDP, Kishida has been vague on what this will mean. Mr. Kishida’s lack of a strong vision is part of what got him elected,” the Economist wrote this week, adding that unlike some of his rivals he was considered “far less threatening and more pliable,” but that “expectations are low.”

As The Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Julia Mio Inuma report from Tokyo, there is little in Kishida’s background to suggest he’ll break with the status quo. The 64-year-old Kishida served under Abe and has had a lengthy political career. Kishida, like Abe’s former boss was also born to political dynasty. His grandfather and father were both politicians.

Masato Kamikubo, a professor of political science at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, told Nikkei that as a veteran politician, Kishida had “no track record of major failure.” Then he added a caveat: “There’s no track record of any major success in policymaking, either.”

A shake up to the status quo may be what is needed. Kishida took over from the outgoing Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s immediate successor, who had survived in office only one year before announcing in early September that he would step down amid approval ratings that hit a dismal 26 percent this summer.

The downfall of Suga, who had once been Abe’s right-hand man, was widely attributed to the Japanese government’s failures in its coronavirus response. The current problems facing Japanese society go beyond the pandemic. They also include Japan’s growing debt and the resurgent threats from China and North Korea.

Other potential candidates for LDP leader had promised broader change. Taro Kono (Japan’s former foreign minister and vaccine minister) had entered the race for LDP leader and was a popular choice. Although Kono was popular among the LDP’s rank-and-file members, he lost his bid for leadership as Kishida, who was much more popular with party leaders, ultimately losing him the second round.

Though he too came from a political dynasty, Kono’s left-leaning social views — including support for same-sex marriage, opposition to nuclear power and dovish foreign policy — put him at odds with the LDP’s right-wing old guard. His regularly updated Twitter accounts, which have millions of followers and he appears to man himself, probably didn’t help:

The two other leading candidates to take over the LDP were women who had different approaches to their candidacy, with Sanae Takaichi touting her conservative values and Seiko Noda emphasizing the need for gender equality. Takaichi, Abe’s first choice candidate was notable.

Just the presence of two women in the final round was a step for a country that has never had a female leader. However, neither of them won or came very close to winning. As Yuriko Koike, the popular governor of Tokyo who was considered an early candidate, put it this month, “though there’s no Taliban in Japan, I wonder why women’s advancement in society is so delayed.”

There’s another big thing missing from this entire conversation: Japan’s opposition parties.

The LDP has dominated Japanese politics for decades, losing only two elections and being in power for all but four years since its founding in 1955. Despite its unusual alliance with the Soka Gakkai political movement, the Komeito Party to maintain power, many people didn’t expect the LDP would lose the next election.

Part of the blame for that surely lies with the opposition parties, including the Democratic Party of Japan, which won a landslide election in 2009 but soon collapsed amid division and inaction. But some analysts put the blame on Japan’s electoral system — a mixture of party-list and first-past-the-post voting — that gives the LDP an advantage and creates “democracy without competition.”

The end result is that Japan comes perilously close to being a one-party state and that internal LDP leadership bids hold national impact even when they are of limited democratic value. This means LDP leaders like Kishida, who are relatively liberal, end up appealing to more conservative factions of the party to win support. It also explains why Kono is unable to get elected.

Will Kishida move Japan on Abe’s legacy? Some analysts believe he may take the country away from the pro-growth Abeconomics espoused by his predecessor, having previously cited concerns about how “wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small group of people.” But whether he can do so may depend on what sort of electoral mandate he can get.

Abe’s long rule had helped mask Japan’s political dysfunction, but since his unexpected resignation due to ulcerative colitis, the symptoms are clear to see. Merkel led Germany for twice as long and this weekend’s election to succeed her is still deeply inconclusive. It is possible that Japan will need to overcome its post-Abe hangover for a while longer.

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