Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has decided to seek an early public mandate, amid reports that he is about to call an election for the end of the month, several weeks earlier than expected.
Kishida, who was approved by parliament as the country’s leader on Monday, surprised many pundits who believed he would give his Liberal Democratic party (LDP) more time to regroup after a disappointing year under his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga.
But Kishida, a former foreign minister, will instead seek to take advantage of a honeymoon period after his victory last week in the race to succeed Suga as LDP president – a position that practically guaranteed him the premiership given the party’s majorities in both houses of parliament.
“Kishida’s not wasting any time at all,” Tobias Harris, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress, tweeted. “October 31 puts the opposition on its heels, takes advantage of a honeymoon in the polls, plus a better chance of lower [Covid-19] case numbers.
“If he wins comfortably in the general election and can hold things together well enough to win the upper house elections next year, he will have up to three years without an election.”
Suga’s premiership, however, should act as a cautionary tale. When he succeeded Shinzo Abe – who had stepped down because of health issues – last September, his approval rating was about 70% but quickly plummeted over his response to the coronavirus pandemic and his insistence on hosting the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, despite widespread public opposition. Suga said last month he would not seek re-election as LDP president.
Kishida’s first task will be to keep Covid-19 cases low, enabling him to guide the world’s third-biggest economy out of the pandemic and allow a virus-weary population to resume something approaching normal life while preventing a fresh outbreak and renewed pressure on hospitals this winter.
The quietly spoken 64-year-old, a centrist with a reputation as a consensus builder, is to announce the dissolution of parliament on 14 October, with the lower house election to take place on 31 October, the public broadcaster NHK and other media reported.
“I think it will be a new start in its true sense,” he said on Monday. “I want to face this time ahead with strong feelings and strong determination.”
Kishida, Japan’s 100th prime minister, is also expected to name his first cabinet on Monday. Japanese media reported that the foreign and defence minister portfolios would remain unchanged, while incoming ministers would include several allies of Abe, who is close to Kishida despite backing his far-right rival, Sanae Takaichi, in the first round of the two-leg LDP leadership race.
The cabinet of 20 ministers will include just three women, media reports said – a statistic that underlines Japan’s poor performance on gender equality, particularly in the political sphere, where female lawmakers account for a tiny proportion of MPs in the lower house.
Thirteen posts will go to MPs with no previous ministerial experience, in line with Kishida’s pledge to bring in new blood. His LDP leadership rival, Seiko Noda, is expected to be put in charge of addressing gender inequality and the low birthrate, but there will reportedly be no place for Takaichi.
“The Kishida cabinet aims at balance with consideration given to major factions, young lawmakers, and neighbouring countries,” wrote Junichi Makino, SMBC Nikko securities chief economist, in a note. “It’s the kind of cabinet formation that reflects Kishida, who works not to make enemies.”
During his party leadership campaign, Kishida had promised a “new capitalism” that would address the income gap, which had grown under eight years of Abe and his successor Suga.
But analysts said Kishida, aware of Abe’s ability to mobilise votes in his favour in the second round of voting in the party contest, had drifted to the right during the campaign, suggesting that little would change on economic and foreign policy.