Who is Kono Taro, the man who wants to be the next prime minister of Japan?

THE DOMINANCE of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the Diet, the Japanese legislative body, means that the next party chairman will become the country’s prime minister. On September 4, outgoing chairman Suga Yoshihide announced that he would not stand for re-election at the party’s conference on September 29. Whoever is chosen to replace Mr Suga will lead the PLD to the national legislative elections before the end of November. There are four suitors: Kishida Fumio, a former foreign minister; Takaichi Sanae, former Minister of Home Affairs; Noda Seiko, Acting Secretary General of the LDP; and Kono Taro, a former foreign and defense minister who oversees the deployment of the covid-19 vaccine in Japan.

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Among these, Mr. Kono is the audience favorite. In some ways, he’s a conventional candidate. He’s a Blue Blood: his grandfather has become Deputy Prime Minister; his father was president of the Japanese House of Representatives and chairman of the PLD. He also has a lot of experience in government. In other ways, Mr. Kono is unusual. With 2.4 million followers, he is the country’s most popular politician on Twitter. He speaks frankly and engages directly with the audience. He went to college in America and is fluent in English. At 58, he is, by the standards of Japanese politics, still lively. He forged a reputation as a maverick by taking heterodox positions, such as calling for an end to Japan’s dependence on nuclear power long before the Fukushima disaster.

It was Mr. Kono’s unconventional side that made him the favorite. Unlike his main opponents, he is a capable communicator with genuine popular appeal. He leads polls asking voters who they prefer for the next prime minister by a healthy margin. Many young lawmakers see it as their best chance at keeping their jobs in the next election and have put their weight behind it.

Unfortunately for Mr Kono, the outcome of the PLD elections does not depend solely on popularity. The initial ballot combines the party’s 383 Diet members and 383 other votes that reflect the choices of the party’s 1.1 million members. If neither candidate obtains a majority, as is often the case, the first two go to a second round in which the votes of the members of the Diet carry much more weight. They tend to vote in blocs along faction lines, but this year, faced with pressure from younger members, faction leaders have promised to allow members to vote as they please.

Despite his popularity, many of Mr. Kono’s colleagues are suspicious of him. Some on the right of the party suspect that he is too liberal to be trusted. They fear that he is going after his father, who in 1993 issued an unprecedented apology to “comfort women” forced to work in wartime Japanese brothels across Asia. For many of the party’s old guard, Mr Kono also seems too out of control. He has tried to allay those concerns by softening some of his previous positions, such as his opposition to nuclear power. For some, this is proof of a politician without a nucleus; for others, it reflects the pragmatism of a serious person who wants to gain power.

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