TOKYO: Japan’ chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga is set to become the country’s next prime minister after the ruling party on Monday elected him successor to outgoing leader Shinzo Abe.
Mr Suga easily won the vote, taking 377 of the 534 valid votes cast by Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers and regional representatives, significantly ahead of his two rivals.
Given his party’s legislative majority, he is expected to handily win a parliamentary vote Wednesday and become prime minister, succeeding Mr Abe, who is resigning for health reasons.
The 71-year-old repeated his pledge to continue Mr 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 added. “This is my mission.” Even before he formally announced his run, the 71-year-old 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 country’s 47 regions, eschewing a broader ballot including rank-and-file members that officials said would have taken too long to organise.
Mr Suga beat off the competition of former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida.
Mr 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.
But he pledged to “fully support” Mr 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.
Mr Abe made the shock announcement he would step down with a year left in his mandate in late August, saying a recurrence of the ulcerative colitis he has long battled made it impossible for him to stay on.
Analysts say Mr Suga is unlikely to make any major agenda reversals, and the candidate himself has said his run is intended to ensure a continuation of Mr Abe’s key policies.
The next prime minister will face a raft of complicated challenges.
The country was already in recession before the coronavirus pandemic, and many of the gains of the signature Abenomics economic policy are now in danger.
Mr Suga has said kickstarting the economy will be a top priority, along with containing the virus – essential if the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics are to open as planned in July 2021.
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 the coronavirus and unrest in Hong Kong.