TOKYO — With the world’s oldest population, rapidly declining births, gargantuan public debt and increasingly damaging natural disasters fueled by climate change, Japan faces deep-rooted challenges that the longstanding governing party has failed to tackle.
Yet in choosing a new prime minister on Wednesday, the Liberal Democratic Party elected the candidate least likely to offer bold solutions.
The party’s elite power brokers chose Fumio Kishida, 64, a stalwart moderate, in a runoff election for the leadership, seeming to disregard the public’s preference for a maverick challenger. In doing so, they anointed a politician with little to distinguish him from the unpopular departing leader, Yoshihide Suga, or his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
Elders in the party, which has had a near monopoly on power in the decades since World War II, made their choice confident that, with a weak political opposition and low voter turnout, they would face little chance of losing a general election later this year. So, largely insulated from voter pressure, they opted for a predictable former foreign minister who has learned to control any impulse to stray from the mainstream party platform.
slowly emerges from six months of pandemic restrictions that have battered the economy.
Taro Kono, an outspoken nonconformist whose common touch has made him popular with the public and with rank-and-file party members. Mr. Kishida prevailed in the second round of voting, in which ballots cast by members of Parliament held greater weight than ballots cast by other party members.
He will become prime minister when Parliament holds a special session next week, and will then lead the party into the general election, which must be held by November.
In his victory speech on Wednesday, Mr. Kishida acknowledged the challenges he faces. “We have mountains of important issues that lie ahead in Japan’s future,” he said.
They loom both at home and abroad. Mr. Kishida faces mounting tensions in the region as China has grown increasingly aggressive and North Korea has started testing ballistic missiles again. Taiwan is seeking membership in a multilateral trade pact that Japan helped negotiate, and Mr. Kishida may have to help finesse a decision on how to accept the self-governed island into the group without angering China.
As a former foreign minister, Mr. Kishida may have an easier time managing his international portfolio. Most analysts expect that he will maintain a strong relationship with the United States and continue to build on alliances with Australia and India to create a bulwark against China.
But on the domestic front, he is mostly offering a continuation of Mr. Abe’s economic policies, which have failed to cure the country’s stagnation. Income inequality is rising as fewer workers benefit from Japan’s vaunted system of lifetime employment — a reality reflected in Mr. Kishida’s campaign promise of a “new capitalism” that encourages companies to share more profits with middle-class workers.