Scaled-down race for Abe's job likely as Suga seeks post

Long-time lieutenant would extend fiscal stimulus of Japan's longest-serving leader if he gains premiership

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga (left) joins the race to take over from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP president is virtually assured of being prime minister because of the party's
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga (above) joins the race to take over from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP president is virtually assured of being prime minister because of the party's majority in the Lower House of Parliament.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO • Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga will join the race to succeed his boss Shinzo Abe as prime minister, local media said yesterday, as the competition to take over from Japan's longest-serving leader hots up.

Mr Suga, 71, a long-time lieutenant of Mr Abe's in a key supporting role, had denied interest in the top job, but attracted attention with a series of interviews with Reuters and other news organisations in the days before Mr Abe's abrupt resignation for health reasons.

A Suga government would extend the fiscal and monetary stimulus that defined 65-year-old Mr Abe's nearly eight years in office.

Mr Abe's announcement last Friday, citing a worsening of a chronic illness, set the stage for a leadership election within his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP president is virtually assured of being prime minister because of the party's majority in the Lower House of Parliament.

Mr Suga decided to join the LDP race, judging that he should play a leading role, given expectations of his ability to manage crises. These include the Covid-19 pandemic and Japan's deepest post-war economic dive, Kyodo news agency said, citing an unnamed source.

Mr Suga would join such candidates as former foreign minister Fumio Kishida and former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba.

Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, 39, the son of charismatic former premier Junichiro Koizumi and considered a future premier, has decided not to run, but he would back Defence Minister Taro Kono if he joins the race, NHK said.

Former internal affairs minister Seiko Noda and former defence minister Tomomi Inada, who is known as a fiscal hawk, are interested in seeking to become Japan's first female premier, the media reported.

Mr Suga, a self-made politician in a country of political dynasties, was chosen by Mr Abe in 2012 for the pivotal role of chief cabinet secretary, acting as top government spokesman, coordinating policies and riding herd on bureaucrats.

"I'm thinking of running in the LDP leadership race. I'd like you to support me," Mr Suga told LDP secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai in a secret meeting last Saturday, TV Tokyo reported.

Mr Nikai's faction will most likely support Mr Suga if he runs, Mr Takeo Kawamura, a senior faction official, told reporters after a meeting of the group's leaders.

"Everyone wants to be on the winning side, so if Nikai is supporting Suga, they will jump on the bandwagon," said political science professor Koichi Nakano of Sophia University.

LDP heavyweights aim to hold a slimmed-down leadership contest around Sept 13 to 15, public broadcaster NHK said yesterday.

Mr Suga decided to join the LDP race, judging that he should play a leading role, given expectations of his ability to manage crises. These include the Covid-19 pandemic and Japan's deepest post-war economic dive, Kyodo news agency said, citing an unnamed source.

The party is likely to decide on the scaled-down version tomorrow, Mr Kawamura said.

Usually, a leadership vote is held by LDP Members of Parliament along with grassroots party members in a month-long process.

But in the event of a sudden resignation, an extraordinary vote can be called, with participants narrowed down to MPs and representatives of the LDP local chapters.

The scaled-down version may disadvantage Mr Ishiba, a long-time Abe critic who promotes boosting regional economies in Japan's depopulating hinterlands.

He is popular with the public but less so among party MPs.

Mr Suga ranks low in voter polls of the preferred next premier. He projects the image of a behind-the-scenes operator more than that of a front-line leader, so some analysts doubt he would be best to lead the LDP into a general election that must be held by late October next year.

LDP factions will play a dominant role in the election, Professor Nakano said.

There might be media criticism that this is not a real contest, which might give Mr Ishiba a bump up, but "not enough to change the momentum", he said.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2020, with the headline 'Scaled-down race for Abe's job likely as Suga seeks post'. Subscribe