Kishida to take office as Japan PM with virus, economy top challenges

TOKYO. KAZINFORM Fumio Kishida takes office as Japan's new prime minister on Monday, forming a Cabinet tasked with keeping COVID-19 under control while reviving a battered economy as he looks to appeal to voters heading into next month's general election.

The former foreign minister will also seek to strengthen ties with the United States amid concerns over China's growing assertiveness and the recent resumption of missile tests by North Korea, Kyodo reports.

Kishida, 64, will be elected premier by parliament when it convenes for an extraordinary session in the afternoon as the ruling coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party, which chose him as its new leader last week, controls both chambers.

Kishida replaces Yoshihide Suga, who is resigning amid criticism of his pandemic response.

After naming his new Cabinet -- Toshimitsu Motegi is set to be retained as foreign minister while Shunichi Suzuki will be tapped as finance minister and Hirokazu Matsuno as chief Cabinet secretary -- Kishida will be formally inaugurated in a ceremony at the imperial palace and hold a press conference in the evening.

With around 60 percent of Japan's population fully vaccinated and COVID-19 cases in decline, Kishida's immediate task will be preventing another surge in infections while gradually lifting restrictions on social and business activities and reopening the border to foreign travelers.

Vowing to draw up an economic package worth «tens of trillions of yen» within the year to deal with the pandemic, he has also promised to reduce wealth disparities in a course correction of «Abenomics,» which helped lift corporate earnings and stock prices but did little to spark wage growth.

Like Suga and Shinzo Abe before him, Kishida has underscored the importance of realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific and is expected to continue cooperation with the United States and other like-minded countries like Australia and India to address Beijing's expansionist moves in the South and East China seas and tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

A moderate hailing from a political family in Hiroshima, he has promised to push forward efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons, while arguing that Japan should consider giving the Self-Defense Forces the capability to conduct missile strikes on hostile enemy bases.

It is unclear how much social change there will be under Kishida as premier -- he has called for further debate on whether to allow married couples to take separate surnames and is «undecided» on whether same-sex marriage should be legalized.

Suga's Cabinet is set to resign en masse in the morning, little more than a year after its formation, after repeated declarations of COVID-19 states of emergency and poor communication of policy sent approval ratings plummeting, with the Tokyo Olympics doing little to buoy sentiment.

Kishida's first major test in office will be the general election, in which he will need to defy his image as a low-key consensus builder who struggles to excite voters in order to gain a strong mandate to govern.

According to people familiar with his thinking, Kishida plans to dissolve the House of Representatives on Oct. 14 and hold an election on Nov. 7.

While the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito are unlikely to lose their majority in the lower house, opposition forces including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan may snatch some seats by consolidating candidates, political analysts say.

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