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Parliament elects Fumio Kishida as new Prime Minister of Japan


Japan's Parliament officially voted in a new prime minister today. His name is Fumio Kishida. And he's going to face a host of challenges, including winning votes for his party in the upcoming elections. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul with the story.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Kishida basically locked up the prime minister's job last week when he won an internal vote for president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party - or LDP. The LDP's boss has all but guaranteed the job because it dominates both houses of Parliament. Kishida beat one man and two women for the LDP presidency, after which he spoke to reporters.



KUHN: "We must show the people that the LDP has been reborn," he said, "and seek their support." To some observers, though, the party's latest incarnation looks all too familiar.

SHEILA SMITH: This was a decisive win for the internal powerbrokers of the party.

KUHN: Sheila Smith is a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. She notes Japanese media reports that party heavyweight and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe maneuvered behind the scenes to help Kishida beat the more popular vaccine minister, Taro Kono. Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo, says that Abe, who stepped down last year, intends to retain his influence in politics.

KOICHI NAKANO: He probably also is still thinking that he may have another shot at being prime minister.

KUHN: Abe was succeeded by his deputy, Yoshihide Suga. But Suga was unpopular due to his handling of the pandemic. And Nakano says Abe may have been dissatisfied with him, too.

NAKANO: And so this time, I think he was really looking for somebody who's going to be better controlled by him.

KUHN: Kishida is a lawmaker from the city of Hiroshima. He comes from a family of politicians. He attended second and third grades at a public school in Queens, N.Y. He has a reputation as a moderate and a steady hand. Koichi Nakano says the only way for someone from that moderate faction to get power these days is...

NAKANO: To, essentially, follow the lead taken by the more right-wing elements within the LDP that has been led by Abe.

KUHN: Kishida faces a raft of challenges. Japan's population is aging and shrinking. It faces increasing military pressure from China and North Korea. It has struggled for decades with falling wages and prices and massive government debt. Kishida is expected to mostly stick with Shinzo Abe's economic policies and his foreign policy centered on the alliance with the U.S. Sheila Smith says Kishida also faces demands to freshen up the party's ossified image.

SMITH: How do we structure the party and our decision-making in a better way so that we're not the back door, behind-the-scenes, money-in-politics party?

KUHN: Kishida has said he wants to make a more open LDP. He's picked 13 first timers out of 20 cabinet ministers, three of them are women. But Sophia University's Koichi Nakano says the ruling party is pretty confident about its prospects, including hanging onto its majority in parliament in upcoming general elections.

NAKANO: The LDP is feeling the popular pressure. But I think they are not quite aware that the boat is sinking. They're still dancing to the music that is being played in the VIP rooms.

KUHN: Kishida scheduled the vote early, for October 31st. He appears to be betting on relatively high approval ratings during his honeymoon period, low independent voter turnout and low COVID-19 case numbers.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS "PRAXIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.