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Change, not continuity, will define Japan's new leader

Each candidate vying for top job has emphasized a break from the past

| Japan
Candidates for the presidential election of the LDP, left to right, Taro Kono, Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda, pose in Tokyo on Sept. 18.   © Kyodo

Lully Miura is president of the Yamaneko Research Institute Inc., a nonpartisan, independent think tank providing geopolitical and strategic insights as well as solutions for policymakers, media and society.

Today, Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party will elect a new president, who will then become the country's next prime minister.

The race has been a fierce power struggle that has not been seen for some time after the long and stable administration of Shinzo Abe, and the short-lived administration of Yoshihide Suga that followed.

Unlike the previous change of leadership only a year ago, none of the candidates appealed for continuity, and they have attempted to sell their respective versions of change.

Depending upon the outcome, Japan could elect as leader a member of a new generation, a leader from a different LDP faction, or perhaps even its first female prime minister.

Among the four candidates, there does not seem to be a decisive favorite.

The front-runner is Taro Kono, 58, who represents the younger generation and has gathered widespread popularity from the public. Known to be a rationalist reformer, a relentless cost-cutter and sometimes very short-tempered, Kono is somewhat of a maverick. Passionate about green and energy policy, he has not any experience in the important economic portfolios.

If a Kono administration is realized, party elders such as ex-Prime Ministers Taro Aso and Suga will support him, but there is likely to be friction arising from Kono's contentious style. How Kono rewards his key backer and longtime Abe rival, Shigeru Ishiba, will be especially important, as it may lead to serious conflicts inside the party.

Former party policy chief Fumio Kishida, 64, who is expected to come second in the first ballot, represents stability among the four: a faction leader himself who enjoys support from the LDP old guard. His strategy will be to override Kono in a second ballot.

Despite his humble and sometimes boring personality, Kishida has improved his communication skills since he last ran for the post. Kishida would have been the favorite a generation ago when power was passed on within the LDP in accordance with factional power balance.

But after suffering a historic defeat in 2009, the LDP has become more populist, and it is now increasingly difficult for someone who is seen as unpopular with voters to land the top job.

Former Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi, 60, is the candidate capitalizing on this populist tendency. By combining conservative social policy with a dovish fiscal policy, she has risen as the darling of the right. The blessing of former Prime Minister Abe is obviously a huge plus as well.

As a conservative female candidate, and with good communication skills, Takaichi is predicted to come in third in the first round. Even though she will likely not come on top, Takaichi has clearly exceeded expectations and has guaranteed a large role for herself in the next government and perhaps a great platform to launch another leadership bid in the future.

The fourth candidate, former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda, 61, has brought diversity to the race, as well as putting women's issues front and center. But Noda has been slow to penetrate the minds of the public and fellow party delegates. Even so, she may have a strategic role to play in the second ballot when tactics and coalition building will become important among the four camps.

From a policy perspective, Kono and Kishida represent typical schools of thought. Kono is the pro-market reformer, while Kishida represents the status quo and a policy agenda characterized by incrementalism.

The new taste introduced in this race has been Takaichi's combination of social conservatism and expansionist fiscal policy. One could say that her policy has common characteristics with that adopted by former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016.

Trump dragged the Republican Party toward big government, cloaked in conservative sentiment. The difference with Takaichi is perhaps that the LDP already pursued this combination of social conservatism and big government until the early 1990s, a policy outlook that separated the LDP from center-right parties in other countries.

The collapse of the bubble economy in the 1990s resulted in the so-called lost decades, from which Japan took a long time to recover.

The skyline of Tokyo, pictured on Aug. 7: Japan took a long time to recover from the lost decades.   © AP

Following this period, the LDP shifted toward structural reform policies. While Abe embraced a dovish monetary policy, he failed to meet advisers' expectations when it came to fiscal stimulus, instead prioritizing consumption tax increases and international commitments to balance the budget.

It is unclear whether Takaichi's policies are a reflection of the LDP's values in the good old days, or whether this could lead to the discovery of a new conservative base. For now, all candidates have pledged to increase government spending and tackle inequality.

On inequality, Noda is focused on women and single-parent households. Kono has pointed to the pay gap between permanent and nonpermanent workers. Kishida presents himself as an all-rounder but has stressed the need to rectify the disparity between urban and rural areas.

By mentioning the idea of introducing social security for freelance employees, Takaichi has made a case for supporting small business owners and self-reliant workers that have been hit hard by the coronavirus.

The new PM will face a general election in November. At the same time, Japan is likely to see another increase in coronavirus infections.

Stimulus measures, if adopted, might fail to impress voters who remain nervous about COVID, even though Japan's fatality rate has become quite low thanks to the vaccine effort. That could see support for the new prime minister crumble in the face of a COVID outbreak in the winter after the election.

A weak prime minister would not only be damaging for the LDP, but the Japanese economy as well.

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