'I'm just an ordinary person,' says Yoshihide Suga, front runner to succeed Abe as Japan PM

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has won the backing of more than 70 per cent of the LDP's lawmakers. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO - Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a front runner to succeed incumbent prime minister Shinzo Abe, on Tuesday (Sept 8) described himself as "an ordinary person" who has risen against the odds and can be an inspirational tale were he to be the country's next leader.

"I won my first election at the age of 47, starting from zero with no blood ties," he said. "And now I'm aiming to become prime minister. Even an ordinary person, like myself, can have such ambitions if they make an effort."

The race to become leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - and hence prime minister as the LDP has a majority in the Diet - officially kicked off on Tuesday, with candidates facing off after they filed their candidacy papers.

The LDP will choose a successor next Monday to outgoing Mr Shinzo Abe, who abruptly resigned last month over a chronic digestive ailment. The victor will be inaugurated in the Diet next Wednesday.

Mr Suga, 71, faces two challengers for the top post: former defence chief Shigeru Ishiba, 63, and former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, 63.

But Mr Suga, who has been Mr Abe's trusty lieutenant since coming to power in December 2012 and now his preferred successor, is by far the runaway favourite. He has won the backing of more than 70 per cent of the LDP's lawmakers, including Defence Minister Taro Kono and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi.

Should Mr Suga become prime minister, the native of Akita prefecture in the north-east and son to strawberry farmers will be a rare Japanese leader who is not a political blue blood.

Mr Ishiba's father was governor of their native Tottori prefecture in western Japan, while Mr Kishida's father and grandfather were both former MPs.

Mr Suga has sought to present himself as the ideal continuity candidate for the years of stability that Mr Abe brought to volatile Japanese politics, promising to follow Mr Abe's footsteps in raising Japan's diplomatic profile and to continue the Abenomics brand of economic policies to stimulate growth.

But he tried to distance himself from the faults of Mr Abe's administration, in particular the concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office that has been blamed for a spate of cronyism scandals and document tampering as bureaucrats sought to curry favour.

He also said that he will create a digital agency, noting that the Covid-19 crisis had exposed how woefully Japan is lacking in its digital push. Among other things, the new body will promote online learning, telemedicine, and paperless administrative processes.

Mr Suga, who has no factional affiliation of his own, promised to move away from the practice of "rewarding" Cabinet ministerial posts to loyalists or by following a so-called "waiting list" for Cabinet positions based on seniority. Instead, he wants priority in his Cabinet to be given to reform-minded people and subject experts.

Mr Ishiba, meanwhile, who has long been an unabashed critic of Mr Abe, described himself as someone who is "brutally honest and tactless to a fault" but swears by transparency.

He has called for a major push to revitalise rural areas by investing in regional infrastructure to declutter major metropolises like Tokyo and Osaka. Spreading government functions and industries across a wider area will better disaster-proof Japan, he said, adding that his priority is to create a disaster management agency.

Mr Kishida framed himself as a relatable candidate who has experienced "multiple failures" in life, citing how he failed his university entrance examination three times, among other things.

Noting that the benefits of Abenomics had not been felt by those in the middle-income trap and in rural areas, he vowed to tackle growing inequality including such means as raising the minimum wage and education subsidies.

Amid fervent talk that a snap election might be in the offing to ride on the wave of public support for the LDP, all three men said that overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic remains the top priority.

While an election is only due in October next year, Mr Suga and Mr Kishida said they would consider a snap election when the situation is under control. But Mr Ishiba ruled out the idea, saying that lawmakers should serve out their full four-year terms.

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