Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is set to become the country’s next prime minister after the ruling party yesterday elected him successor to outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Suga easily won the vote, taking 377 of the 534 valid votes cast by Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers and regional representatives, significantly ahead of his two rivals.
Given his party’s legislative majority, he is expected to handily win tomorrow’s parliamentary vote and succeed Abe, who is stepping down due to health reasons.
Suga, 71, repeated his pledge to continue Abe’s policies as he accepted the party’s nomination as leader.
“In order to overcome the crisis and give the Japanese people a sense of relief, we need to succeed in what Prime Minister Abe has been implementing,” he said.
“This is my mission,” he added.
Even before he formally announced his run, Suga had won the support of key factions within the ruling party, with his candidacy viewed as promising stability.
The LDP chose to poll only its lawmakers in parliament and three representatives from each of the nation’s 47 regions, eschewing a broader ballot including rank-and-file members that officials said would have taken too long to organize.
Suga beat off the competition of former minister of defense Shigeru Ishiba and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida.
Abe, who smashed records as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister with more than eight years in power over two terms, declined to endorse any one candidate.
However, he pledged to “fully support” Suga after his win, saying he had watched him “working hard and quietly for the nation and people” in his role as chief Cabinet secretary.
“Let’s build a shining Japan by overcoming the coronavirus crisis, with new LDP chief Suga at the helm,” he added.
Abe made the shock announcement he would step down with a year left in his mandate late last month, saying a recurrence of the ulcerative colitis he has long battled made it impossible for him to stay on.
Analysts say Suga is unlikely to make any major agenda reversals, but as prime minister, he will face a raft of complicated challenges.
The country was already in recession before the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of the gains of the signature Abenomics economic policy are now in danger.
Suga has said kick-starting the economy would be a top priority, along with containing the virus — essential if the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics are to open as planned in July next year.
There are also diplomatic challenges on the agenda, including protecting the US alliance and navigating ties with China as global opinion hardens against Beijing after COVID-19 and unrest in Hong Kong.
“Now is a difficult time for Japan as the US is putting pressure on China,” said Makoto Iokibe, a professor of political and diplomatic history at the University of Hyogo.
“But simply following the path Washington is pursuing and raising tensions with China is not in Japan’s interest,” he said.
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