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Japan election

Kishida picks Foreign Minister Motegi to replace Sec-Gen Amari

Awkward switch comes after heavyweight lost in his single-seat district

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi speaks to reporters after meeting with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Nov. 1.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida intends to replace his ruling party's second-most-powerful official, Secretary-General Akira Amari, after the latter lost his single-seat district in Sunday's general election and offered his resignation.

It is rare for a party secretary-general, who is in charge of election campaigning, to quit the day after a vote -- especially one in which the party won an outright majority. The switch is an awkward distraction for Kishida, who is preparing to roll out a new stimulus plan. But the prime minister plans to accept Amari's resignation and appoint Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi as his successor in the role of Liberal Democratic Party secretary-general.

Motegi revealed his impending appointment to reporters on Monday, saying that Kishida asked him to "make concrete and bold reforms to the party." Motegi said the next foreign minister would be discussed later; his appointment is expected to become official on Thursday.

Amari -- who along with former Prime Ministers Taro Aso and Shinzo Abe is dubbed one of the "Three A's" -- is considered one of the most influential heavyweights in the LDP. He helped propel Kishida to victory in the party's presidential race this September. But Kishida's decision to appoint him secretary-general also drew criticism within the party over a past scandal involving political funds.

Aso, as LDP vice president, is nominally the party's second-highest official. But in practice that status belongs to the secretary-general, who handles the selection of election candidates, the budget and the intraparty appointments.

The need to replace Amari so soon deals a blow to Kishida just as he looks to build momentum for his new government, rejuvenate the pandemic-hit economy and keep COVID-19 under control.

In a news conference on Monday, Kishida would only say of Amari: "I will hold discussions with him and will make a decision as soon as possible."

The prime minister focused his remarks on his plans for governing, stressing, "I plan to implement policies with a sense of speed."

He pledged to provide financial support to part-time workers, families with small children and pandemic-stricken businesses regardless of industry. Cash handouts and other subsidies will be included in an economic stimulus package his government aims to hammer out by mid-November, he said.

He also said he would start discussions on resuming the Go To Travel campaign -- a domestic effort to prop up the battered tourism industry with discounts and vouchers, halted after COVID-19 cases rose.

On the virus management front, Kishida said that "we will outline our COVID response early this month," adding that his administration will also work toward providing booster shots starting in December.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to reporters on Monday, the day after his party's general election victory. (Photo by Karina Nooka) 

Even with the Amari setback, the LDP is in a relatively strong position after the election. It secured not only a sole majority in the lower house but also an absolute stable one, with 261 seats.

An absolute majority ensures that the LDP holds the chairmanships of all lower house committees as well as a majority of seats on them, all but ensuring that any bill can pass. Together with its junior partner, Komeito, the ruling camp was able to win 293 out of the 465 seats that were up for grabs.

Kishida is expected to call a special parliamentary session on Nov. 10, where he is likely to be reelected as prime minister. Soon after establishing his second cabinet, he plans to submit a supplementary budget for fiscal 2021 worth several hundred billion dollars -- a spending package he aims to pass within the year.

The prime minister's news conference touched on bigger themes and security as well. Under his "new capitalism" policy, Kishida aims to support investments in science and advanced technology and accelerate growth, while boosting wages to generate a cycle of growth and distribution.

Kishida also talked about revising the country's National Security Strategy, saying he will work quickly to "strengthen [Japan's] missile defense capabilities," along with areas like artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. Increasing the resilience of supply chains is another security priority, he said.

Kishida plans to visit Glasgow for the United Nations' ongoing COP26 climate summit, saying, "I will uphold [Japan's goal] of carbon neutrality and will also demonstrate leadership to realize zero emissions for all of Asia."

On Monday, equity markets reacted positively to the LDP's comfortable victory. Some investors and analysts had warned the ruling party could face an uphill battle, but the result eased concerns about political uncertainty. In the Tokyo market, the blue-chip Nikkei Stock Average closed up over 700 points, or 2.6%, reaching its highest end point in over a month.

Kishida will not have much time to bask in the win, however -- a reality he seemed to acknowledge with his vow of "speed." An upper house election looms next summer.

Shunsuke Kobayashi, chief economist at Mizuho Securities in Tokyo, pointed out, "Maintaining his approval rating until next summer and keeping at least a majority will be a life-and-death condition for Kishida to establish a long-term government."

Sunday's election may be a harbinger of battles to come. The LDP's main rival, the Constitutional Democratic Party, led a largely united opposition front, resulting in heated races in many districts. Like Amari, former LDP Secretary-General Nobuteru Ishihara, the son of ex-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, was another big name who lost in his single-seat constituency.

Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party), a conservative or libertarian opposition group, had a stellar night -- more than tripling its seat count and overtaking Komeito as the third-largest party.

Hinting at prospects for working with the rising party, Kishida said, "We will continue to take a fair and just stance, taking into account the fact that we are both conservative forces."

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