TOKYO: Japan dissolved its parliament on Thursday (Oct 14), setting the stage for an election at the end of the month that will pit new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida against unpopular opposition in a battle over who can better fix the pandemic-battered economy.
Kishida enjoys reasonable public support 11 days into the job, polls show, boding well for his goal of maintaining a lower house majority for his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its Komeito party coalition partner.
A recent Sankei newspaper poll showed that about 48% of respondents want the new administration to work on coronavirus as its No.1 priority, followed by economic recovery and employment.
Kishida's party is promoting his push for coronavirus measures including supplying an oral antiviral medication this year, as well as his vision of realising a "new capitalism" that focuses on economic growth and a redistribution of wealth.
"We'll do everything we can to tackle the coronavirus," Kishida said at a news conference, reiterating government plans to start administering booster shots from December and pledging to strengthen Japan's hospitals and its testing capacity.
Kishida also stressed the need to help the economy recover from the pandemic and said it would be his highest priority to deliver a stimulus package worth "several tens of trillions of yen."
He highlighted the need for the private and public sector to work together on revitalising the economy.
"In order to achieve strong economic growth, it's not enough to rely just on market competition. That won't deliver the fruits of growth to the broader population," Kishida said.
He laid out the details of the package, such as spending to promote domestic development and production of vaccines and COVID-19 drugs, as well as support for Taiwan chip giant TSMC's planned new factory construction in Japan.
Kishida has created a new ministry of economic security with China in mind, aiming to better protect sensitive technologies, prevent cybercrime, secure supplies of rare earth metals and help companies diversify their supply chains.
The government will also begin preparations to restart a popular subsidised travel scheme, aimed at hotels and travel agencies hit by the pandemic that was suspended late last year as coronavirus cases grew, he said.
The ruling party has also called for a sharp increase in defence spending to acquire the capability to destroy ballistic missiles, amid China's increasingly assertive posture over Taiwan.
Kishida said he wanted to start in-person diplomacy as soon as possible, starting with President Joe Biden of the United States, Japan's most important military ally.
The largest opposition party, the Constitutional Democrats (CDPJ), led by Yukio Edano, has highlighted social issues such as its support for same-sex marriage and for allowing couples to keep different surnames.
The LDP remains socially conservative and, while progress has been made on LGBTQ rights in society, Kishida has said he is not in favour of same-sex marriage.
The biggest challenge for the Constitutional Democrats is their low support ratings. A recent poll by the Asahi Shimbun daily found only 13 per cent were planning to vote for them, far behind the LDP's 47 per cent; most other polls record support in the single digits.
Canvassing in many districts is already underway but formally the campaign will kick off on Oct 19, followed by the vote on Oct 31.