TOKYO - Japan’s new Prime Minister will be Mr Yoshihide Suga, a trusty lieutenant and close confidante to outgoing leader Shinzo Abe who appointed him Chief Cabinet Secretary when he took office in December 2012.
Their political careers have been inexorably linked, with Mr Suga, 71, being the mouthpiece of government policies and shielding Mr Abe when he came under pressure over scandals.
Mr Suga won comfortably in a ruling party election on Monday (Sept 14) and shortly thereafter pledged to continue Mr Abe’s economic and foreign policies. He also presented himself as a reformist who will tackle inefficiencies.
The change in Nagatacho, Japan’s political centre, will officially take place on Wednesday when the Diet convenes for a three-day extraordinary session.
It comes as Mr Abe, who turns 66 next Monday, suddenly resigned last month over a relapse of ulcerative colitis. The stress-induced chronic digestive condition had already once, in 2007, forced a premature end to his leadership.
Mr Suga, a rare Japanese leader with no political blood nor faction affiliation, stressed in his victory speech that a political vacuum cannot be allowed during a time of national crisis caused by Covid-19.
“I want to create a government that people can trust,” he said. “I will push ahead with deregulation and put an end to ministry sectionalism, endemic vested interests and the practice of blindly following past precedents.”
He told a news conference that he will prioritise reform-minded people as well as subject experts for his Cabinet ministers, instead of heeding closely to the party’s tradition of horse-trading where Cabinet posts are allocated as a quid pro quo for election backing.
Mr Suga had quickly won the backing of five of the seven Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) factions after he threw his hat into the ring with Mr Abe’s tacit support.
The winner was chosen by 394 LDP lawmakers, who got one ballot each, and the party’s 47 prefecture chapters which had three delegate votes each.
Mr Suga, who is competing in the LDP leadership race for the first time, was the runaway champion. He won 377 out of the 534 valid ballots cast, or 70.5 per cent of the vote, comprising 288 MP votes and 89 local delegate votes.
In second place was former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, 63, likewise a first-time contender, whose 89 votes came from 79 lawmakers and 10 local delegates.
In last place was former defence chief Shigeru Ishiba, 63, who is competing in the LDP election for the fourth time. His 68 votes came from 26 lawmakers and 42 local delegates.
While the LDP President carries a term of three years, Mr Suga was elected to serve out the rest of Mr Abe’s tenure, which is due to expire in September 2021. Another party leadership vote will be called then.
Mr Abe on Monday said in brief remarks after the electoral outcome was announced that Mr Suga was “indisputably” the best person to take Japan forward. He said, to raucous applause: “For the past seven years and eight months, I have watched Mr Suga silently sweat and toil for the country.”
Mr Suga is expected to name the leadership in the LDP on Tuesday and his new Cabinet on Wednesday.
He inherits an economy that is in recession, battered by Covid-19, and social issues like a rapidly ageing population exemplified by the fact that his hometown, Yuzawa city in Akita, is hollowing out.
He will also have to steer Japan through geopolitical challenges, with tensions between the United States and China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin congratulated Mr Suga in a daily news briefing yesterday.
“China is ready to work with the new leader (to) deepen cooperation in the fight against Covid-19, as well as to promote the steady improvement and development of China-Japan relations,” he said.