Yoshihide Suga was elected as the new head of Japan’s ruling party on Monday (Sept. 14), virtually guaranteeing him parliamentary election as the country’s next prime minister.
Suga received 377 votes in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party election to pick a successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who announced last month that he would resign due to health problems. Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, one of the other two contenders, received 89 votes, while former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba got 68.
The victory by Suga, currently the chief Cabinet secretary of Abe’s government, all but guarantees his election in a parliamentary vote Wednesday because of the majority held by the Liberal Democrats’ ruling coalition.
Suga, the son of a farmer 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 his top priorities are fighting the coronavirus and turning around a Japanese economy battered by the pandemic. He repeatedly has noted achievements under the Abe-led government when asked about various policies.
Suga had gained the support of party heavyweights and their wing members early in the campaign on expectations that he would continue Abe’s policies. That his victory appeared to be a done deal has raised criticism from inside and outside the party that the process is undemocratic and murky.
The closed-door politics also apparently led lawmakers to support Suga in hopes of getting favorable party and Cabinet posts in the new administration.
“Now I’m handing the baton to new party leader Suga,” Abe said after the vote. “We can count on him.”
Despite his low-key image as Abe’s right-hand man, Suga is actually known for his iron-fist approach to getting jobs done as a policy coordinator and influencing bureaucrats by using the centralized power of the prime minister’s office.
Suga says that he is a reformist and that he has worked to achieve policies by breaking territorial barriers of bureaucracy. He has credited himself for those efforts in achieving a booming foreign tourism industry in Japan, lowering cellphone bills and bolstering agricultural exports.
Compared to his political skills at home, Suga has hardly traveled overseas, and his diplomatic skills are unknown, though he is largely expected to pursue Abe’s priorities.
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. And he will have to establish a good relationship with whoever wins the U.S. presidential race.