Japan to hold election Oct. 31, new PM Kishida says after being sworn in

New Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Monday he will dissolve the lower house next week in preparation for Oct. 31 elections as he seeks a fresh mandate to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the sagging economy and security threats from China and North Korea.

Fumio Kishida replaced Yoshihide Suga to lead Japan's dominant LDP into next election

Japan's newly elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is applauded Monday after being chosen as the new prime minister, at the lower house of parliament in Tokyo. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

New Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Monday he will dissolve the lower house next week in preparation for Oct. 31 elections as he seeks a fresh mandate to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the sagging economy and security threats from China and North Korea.

Kishida was formally elected by parliament earlier Monday to replace Yoshihide Suga, who resigned after only one year in office. Suga's support had plunged over his handling of the pandemic, and Kishida emerged last week as the winner of the internal race to succeed him for Japan's dominant Liberal Democratic Party, which has held power for all but a handful of the past 65 years.

"Our fight against the coronavirus is continuing," Kishida told his first news conference Monday night after taking office. "COVID-19 measures is the urgent and top priority, and I will handle the problem taking into consideration the worst-case scenario."

Kishida said he will review the past virus handling and seek to set up a crisis management unit. He also pledged to push through with a large-scale recovery package to support those hit by the pandemic.

"In order to take large-scale COVID-19 measures, I need to get the people's mandate," Kishida said, noting that he will pass up attending G20 and COP-26 climate meetings in-person.

Replaced all but 2 cabinet members

A former foreign minister, Kishida, 64, used to be known as a moderate but turned hawkish on security and more conservative on gender equality and other issues, apparently to show loyalty to influential conservatives in the Liberal Democratic Party and win their support.

Rice crackers featuring new Liberal Democratic Party President Fumio Kishida are seen on sale Friday at a shop at the parliament building in Tokyo. (Kyodo News/Getty Images)

Kishida replaced all but two of Suga's 20 cabinet members, and 13 will hold posts for the first time, according to the lineup announced by new Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno. Most of the posts went to powerful factions that voted for Kishida in the party election. Only three women are included, up from two in Suga's government.

Veteran female lawmaker Seiko Noda, one of four candidates who vied for the party leadership, became the minister in charge of the nation's declining birthrate and local revitalization. Another woman, Noriko Horiuchi, became vaccinations minister, replacing Taro Kono, the runner-up in the party leadership race.

Kishida created a new cabinet post aimed at tackling the economic dimensions of Japan's national security, appointing 46-year-old Takayuki Kobayashi, who is relatively new to parliament.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi, who is former prime minister Shinzo Abe's younger brother, are to be retained, ensuring continuity of Japan's diplomacy and security policies as the country seeks to closely work with Washington under the bilateral security pact in the face of China's rise and growing tensions in the region, including around Taiwan.

Relations with China, Koreas are foreign-policy priorities

Kishida supports stronger Japan-U.S. security ties and partnerships with other like-minded democracies in Asia, Europe and Britain, in part to counter China and nuclear-armed North Korea.

Kishida acknowledged the importance of continuing dialogue with China, an important neighbour and trade partner, but said that "we must speak up" against China's attempt to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas.

Kishida said he is open to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un without preconditions to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens abducted to the North decades ago. He said he will co-operate with U.S. President Joe Biden in resolving North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.

Kishida also faces worsening ties with fellow U.S. ally South Korea over historical issues even after he struck a 2015 agreement with Seoul to resolve a row over the issue of women who were sexually abused by Japan's military during the Second World War.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday sent a letter to Kishida, congratulating him and offering to work together to improve ties.

Japan's outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga leaves the premier's office in Tokyo on Monday. Suga resigned after only one year in office as his support plunged over his government's handling of the pandemic. (Kyodo News/Getty Images)

An urgent task at home will be turning around his party's sagging popularity, hurt by Suga's perceived high-handedness on the pandemic and other issues.

Economy top priority

Kishida will also have to ensure Japan's health-care systems, vaccination campaign and other virus measures are ready for a possible resurgence of COVID-19 in winter, while gradually normalizing social and economic activity.

Kishida said last week that his top priority would be the economy. Kishida's "new capitalism" is largely a continuation of Abe's economic policies. He aims to raise the income of more people and create a cycle of growth and distribution.

A third-generation politician, Kishida was first elected to parliament in 1993 representing Hiroshima and is an advocate for nuclear disarmament. He escorted former U.S. president Barack Obama during his 2016 visit to the city that, along with Nagasaki, was destroyed in U.S. atomic bombings in the closing days of the Second World War.

Suga's decision to step down came as Japan neared its national election, which was required to be held no later than the end of November.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among a number of world leaders and governments to congratulate Kishida on Monday.

With files from CBC News