Suc­ces­sor to Abe cho­sen as leader of rul­ing party

San Francisco Chronicle - - WORLD - By Mari Ya­m­aguchi Mari Ya­m­aguchi is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

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.

Kyodo News

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.

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