East Asia

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East Asia
Japan: New Prime Minister, Old party

  Aswathy Koonampilly

Leaders have to influence party politics rather than appeal to the public. Real decisions are taken behind the screens.

On 29 September, Fumio Kishida was elected as the leader of Japan's ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), following Yoshihide Suga's resignation earlier. Kishida focused on overcoming Suga's shortcomings throughout his campaign, particularly the response to COVID-19 and communication with his electorate. 

Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the domestic politics: From Suga to Kishida
Since the end of the Second World War, Japan's politics has been dominated by the LDP. The party is an essential part of Japan's politics but also is factionalized. In this context, the elections within LDP to decide on the party's leader is more important than the general election itself.  While Suga had entered office with an approval rating of over 70 per cent, these numbers started dwindling within two months as pandemic continued to hold sway. Japan's vaccine rollout was late and slow when compared to other OECD countries. It started vaccinating in mid-February, and by the time the Tokyo Olympics started, only a little over 20 per cent of the population was fully vaccinated. His pandemic relief measures helped mostly large companies while strict lockdowns hit small businesses. The emergency lockdown ended in the last week of September. The promised digitalization of government and economic services also began only last month. Thus, his response to the pandemic was considered slow and inadequate. When the government tried a fast-paced response, it had adverse effects. The "Go-To" domestic travel program encouraged to travel within Japan, but later it led to a faster spread of the virus throughout the country.

As Chief Cabinet Secretary under Abe, Suga was used to fielding questions. By stonewalling the media at daily press conferences, he played a crucial role in protecting Abe's government from greater scrutiny. However, these same actions are preventing him from connecting with the people. Suga's standoffish nature has kept away the media and thus the tool to communicate his message effectively.

He has been criticized for his pale responses. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan's Renho stated that Suga's penchant for looking down and reading answers did not convey a sense of crisis, when people depended on their leader to get them through the pandemic. He lacked a vision, even if he did bring about practical changes. 

Successfully handling the pandemic also involves publicizing any small achievement and placating people's fear or giving the impression that their concerns are being addressed. But Suga turned a deaf ear to domestic protests and went ahead with the Tokyo Olympics in a bid to recover Japan's glory on the international stage. Cases continued to rise during the Olympics, with a peak of 26,000 new cases in a day just before the Paralympics began. A perpetual lockdown had hurt many of the city dwellers while an international spectacle happened next door. 

Thus, in the recent LDP race, Kishida's campaign sought to overcome Suga's oversights. Kishida has promised "tens of trillions of yen" worth of pandemic stimulus as a major part of his agenda. He has been more critical of Abenomics stating that "only the rich got richer," a sentiment many shared during the pandemic. There has been a rise in inequality after the pandemic started (the Gini coefficient went from 29.9 per cent before the pandemic to 32.9 per cent in the latest figures). While Suga tried reviving the economy through supply-side initiatives, Kishida supports demand-side policies through a more equitable "new capitalism."

Will Kishida succeed? Will he address the larger issues?
Kishida has also tried to increase his persona of accessibility by coming to events with a suggestion box. He has even used personal characteristics to build up his image of approachability. For example, he has stated that being a father of three makes him a good listener. During his victory speech, he called his listening skills his "special skill." He has tried to present himself as a relatable candidate despite his privileged upbringing.

Kishida probably won't be a drastic change from Suga. He is just personally improving on where Suga lacked. Alongside, he also had to curry favour within the party to get elected. Compared to Taro Kono, another popular candidate, Kishida has been described as "boring" and "dull." Where Kono is a reformer, Kishida is an establishment choice. Kono had won the most votes among rank-and-file members but he was the "worst-case" scenario to entrenched right-wing party leaders.

Thus, the recent elections reflect the deeper political issues within Japan. Leaders have to infleunce party politics rather than appeal to the public. Real decisions are taken behind the screens. There had been criticism levelled against Suga for a while, but the actual change came only when the support within the party eroded. Kishida's election over Kono is again seen as party leaders' decisions mattering more than the people.

Back to the LDP and Japan's politics
The Japanese election is similar to that of China. The LDP, like the CCP, is most likely to win the race. The election is a confirmation of whom the party selected; the people do not have any real choice between who they want. Only dues-paying party members, who make up less than one per cent of the Japanese population (1.1 million in 125.7 million), can vote in the LDP elections, unlike any registered party member being able to vote in the US. And these grassroots members can influence only the first round of elections. 

To conclude, Suga's resignation shows that the party's favour is not everything, and the real decision-makers should be the people. When there is concurrence between whom the Japanese people want and whom they get, only then Japan will be able to avoid a return to the era of "the revolving door." 
Kishida has stated that there is a "crisis of democracy" due to the distance between politicians and the public. In this case, his focus must be on improving the democratic process in Japan. 

About the author
Aswathy Koonampilly is pursuing post-graduation at the Department of History and International Studies, CHRIST (Deemed to be University)

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