Successor to Abe chosen as leader of ruling party
TOKYO — Yoshihide Suga was elected as the new head of Japan’s ruling party on Monday, all but assuring that he will become the country’s new prime minister when a parliamentary election is held later this week.
Despite his lowkey image, Suga, 71, has been an important figure in outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, serving as the government’s top spokesperson in his role as chief Cabinet secretary. Abe announced last month that he would resign due to health problems.
Suga’s victory in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party vote virtually guarantees his election in a parliamentary vote Wednesday because of the majority held by the LDP’S ruling coalition.
Suga, the son of a strawberry grower in northern Japan’s Akita prefecture, said he had come a long way. “I will devote all of myself to work for the nation and the people,” he said in his victory speech.
He has said that his top priorities will be fighting the coronavirus and turning around a Japanese economy battered by the pandemic. He gained the support of party heavyweights and their wing members early in the campaign on expectations that he would continue Abe’s policies.
Suga received 377 votes in Monday’s vote to pick a successor to Abe. Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, one of the two other contenders, received 89 votes, while former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba got 68.
“Now I’m handing the baton to new LDP President Suga,” Abe said after the vote. “We can count on him.”
Suga has been a loyal supporter of Abe since Abe’s first stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007. Abe’s tenure ended abruptly because of chronic illness, and Suga helped him return as prime minister in 2012.
Suga repeatedly has praised Abe’s diplomacy and economic policies when asked about what he would like to accomplish as prime minister. He also has defended scores of favoritism and cronyism scandals, saying that investigations into the cases were properly handled.
On the surface, the straightfaced Suga is known for offering bland comments at twicedaily televised news briefings. But behind the scenes, he’s known for his ironfist approach to getting jobs done as a policy coordinator and influencing bureaucrats by using the centralized power of the prime minister’s office, leading political observers to call him the “shadow prime minister.” Some bureaucrats who have opposed his policies have reportedly been removed from projects or transferred elsewhere.
Suga, whose portfolio also included a role as head of Okinawa issues in the Abeled government, has offended local leaders with his highhanded approach to a disputed relocation of a U.S. Marine air station on the southern island. He also sparked criticism last year over his hostile responses to a female reporter asking tough questions about Abe’s policies and scandals.
As his parents’ eldest son, Suga defied tradition by deciding not to take over the family farm. Instead, he headed to Tokyo, where he became a selfmade politician, a rarity in Japan’s largely hereditary business of politics — and a change from Abe, the scion of a political dynasty.
In addition to the coronavirus and the economic fallout, Suga stands to inherit several other challenges, including China, which continues its assertive actions in the East China Sea. He also will have to decide what to do with the Tokyo Olympics, which were pushed back to next summer due to the coronavirus.
Yoshihide Suga acknowledges party members meeting in Tokyo after he was chosen to lead the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He is expected to be elected prime minister on Wednesday.