By Elaine Lies and Ju-min Park
TOKYO -Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, on Monday called a parliamentary election for Oct. 31 and vowed to bolster the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, shortly after being formally confirmed by lawmakers in the top job.
Kishida, a 64-year-old former foreign minister with an image as a consensus builder, earlier unveiled a cabinet line-up dominated by allies of former prime minister Shinzo Abe and ex-finance minister Taro Aso.
While Kishida may enjoy a honeymoon period usually afforded new governments by the electorate, political analysts said he probably didn’t want to lose time, given risks posed by the pandemic, and that he first needed to rally his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for the forthcoming election.
His decision to call an election came as a surprise, even though one has to take place by Nov.28, as the term of this parliament was due to expire on Oct. 21. Parliament will now be dissolved on Oct. 14.
Kishida said he would consider COVID-19 relief payouts, adding he had also instructed ministers overseeing the pandemic response to come up with policies on vaccinations, to strengthen the medical system and to expand testing to help reopen the economy.
“Many people are worried that even though the situation has now improved, the number of infections could rise again and, if there is a rebound, whether the hospitals would be able to handle it,” he told reporters.
New coronavirus cases in Tokyo on Monday totalled 87, the lowest since Nov. 2 last year.
Kishida’s predecessor Yoshihide Suga enjoyed support ratings of about 70% soon after taking office a year ago, but was came under heavy fire over his handling of the pandemic. Following Suga’s decision to make way for a new face, Kishida beat three contenders https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/japans-ruling-party-votes-new-leader-who-will-almost-certainly-be-next-pm-2021-09-28 for the LDP leadership last week, paving the way for parliament to formally elect him premier on Monday.
Kishida’s cabinet features allies of Abe, Japan’s longest-serving premier, who quit last year citing ill health as his dream of another term faded.
Of the 20 posts, 13 were filled by people with no prior cabinet experience, in line with Kishida’s pledge to promote fresh faces, but many heavyweight jobs went to allies of Abe or of outgoing finance minister Aso.
“He won the election with the support of Abe and Aso, so now it’s time for him to return the favour, it’s not the time for him to cut them off,” said political analyst Atsuo Ito.
One of those closest to Abe, former economy minister Akira Amari, became the ruling party’s powerful secretary-general.
Amari, who has promised a big extra budget after the election, told reporters on Monday it would need to include steps to ameliorate social divisions and COVID-19.
“So we need to empathise with the people and share their pain, and our leader needs to show the path to unite society and to make it one again,” Amari said.
Aso’s replacement at the finance ministry is his low-profile brother-in-law, Shunichi Suzuki, who is viewed as likely to continue the government’s policy of tempering growth spending with fiscal reform.
The trade and industry portfolio was given to another ally of Abe, current education minister Koichi Hagiuda.
Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi, who is Abe’s brother, retained his position, as did Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, reflecting Kishida’s intention to continue Abe and Suga’s push to boost the nation’s defences and strengthen security ties with the United States and other partners including the QUAD grouping – which includes India and Australia as well as Japan and the United States – while preserving trade ties with China.
Kishida also created a new post of economy security minister and filled it with a close ally of Amari, the architect of policies aimed at protecting sensitive technology from China in areas such as supply chains and cyber security.
There are three women in the line-up, one more than Suga had, but none of them hold a heavyweight portfolio.