TOKYO • Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a faithful loyalist of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, yesterday won a ruling party election to succeed him as leader of the world's third-largest economy.
Mr Suga, 71, is a rare Japanese leader with no political blood nor factional affiliation. The son of strawberry farmers from north-eastern Akita prefecture, he is a self-made politician who reached the pinnacle of Japanese politics by pulling himself up by his own bootstraps.
He won comfortably in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) race, and pledged to continue Mr Abe's economic and foreign policies.
However, he also presented himself as a reformist who will tackle inefficiencies in the bureaucracy, and promised to set up new institutions such as a digital agency, given how Covid-19 has exposed how woeful Japan is on the digital front.
Mr Abe yesterday praised Mr Suga's credentials, saying that he had "sweated and toiled silently" for Japan and was "indisputably" the best person to take the country forward.
Mr Suga will be inaugurated as prime minister tomorrow, when the Diet convenes for a three-day extraordinary session.
He will select the top LDP leadership today, and name his Cabinet team tomorrow.
All eyes will be on his Cabinet appointments, given that Mr Suga has vowed to name his team on merit, instead of the traditional horse-trading where backing from a faction is given in exchange for ministerial positions.
Mr Suga quickly won the support of five out of seven LDP factions in the party leadership contest, winning 377 of the 534 votes cast. This placed him far ahead of former foreign minister Fumio Kishida with 89 votes, and former defence chief Shigeru Ishiba, with 68 votes.
The LDP presidency has a term of three years, but Mr Suga will serve out only the rest of Mr Abe's tenure, which is due to expire next September. Another party election will be held then.
Mr Suga has rejected talk that he will be an "interim" leader, and will likely run again next year. The resounding victory has fuelled talk that a snap election might happen as soon as next month for Mr Suga to cement his leadership with a public mandate.
The Japanese business community has cheered the result. Suntory Holdings chief executive officer Tak Niinami said that he anticipated a smooth takeover and progression of Abe-era policies, but also urged the new government to advance digitalisation and raise productivity.