Japan’s Suga wins party leadership race, headed for premiership

FILE PHOTO: Liberal Democratic Party debates in Tokyo
FILE PHOTO: Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga waves after a debate organized by the Liberal Democratic Party, Youth Bureau and Women's Bureau at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo, Japan September 9, 2020. Philip Fong/Pool via REUTERS/

September 14, 2020

By Linda Sieg and Leika Kihara

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a loyal aide to outgoing prime minister Shinzo Abe, won a landslide victory in a ruling party leadership election on Monday, paving the way for Japan’s first change of leader in nearly eight years.

Suga, 71, who has promised to continue Abe’s main policies, said his big win would give him the backing to pursue his reform goals – including deregulation and breaking down bureaucratic silos – and that containing the novel coronavirus and reviving the economy were conditions for calling a snap general election.

“As I got big support in numbers today, the environment in which I can pursue my policy agenda in a stable manner has been secured,” Suga told a news conference.

Suga won 377 votes out of 534 votes cast, and 535 possible votes, in the leadership election by Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) members of parliament and representatives of its 47 local chapters.

Rival Shigeru Ishiba, a former defence minister, won 68 votes and ex-foreign minister Fumio Kishida got 89.

Suga is virtually certain to be elected prime minister in a parliamentary vote on Wednesday because of the LDP’s lower-house majority. He will serve out Abe’s term as party leader through September 2021.

Suga had emerged as frontrunner after Abe, Japan’s longest-serving premier, said last month he would resign because of ill health, ending nearly eight years in office.

There is speculation Suga will call an election for the lower house of parliament as soon as next month to boost his chances of winning a full three-year term as LDP chief next year. A vote for the chamber must be held by late October 2021.

SNAP ELECTION?

But Suga sounded a cautious note.

“What’s important now is to contain the pandemic while also reviving the economy. I don’t think we can immediately (dissolve the lower house) just because the pandemic is contained,” Suga said. “That’s a decision that must be made looking comprehensively at various factors.”

Suga has said he would continue Abe’s signature “Abenomics” strategy of hyper-easy monetary policy, government spending and reforms while juggling the problems of COVID-19 and a slumping economy, and confronting longer-term issues such as Japan’s ageing population and low birth rate.

Japanese manufacturers remained pessimistic for a 14th straight month in September, a Reuters poll showed, underlining the challenges ahead.

Suga, who has little diplomatic experience, faces geopolitical challenges such as building ties with the winner of the U.S. presidential election and balancing concern over China’s maritime aggressiveness with bilateral economic interdependence.

The son of a strawberry farmer from northern Japan, Suga has since 2012 been chief cabinet secretary, acting as Abe’s top government spokesman, coordinating policies and keeping bureaucrats in line.

“I was born as the oldest son of a farmer in Akita. Without any knowledge or blood ties, I launched into the world of politics, starting from zero – and have been able to become leader of the LDP, with all its traditions and history,” said Suga, whose modest origins differ from many LDP lawmakers.

“I will devote all of myself to work for Japan and its citizens,” he said after the party vote.

His image is more as a behind-the-scenes operator than a frontline leader but he rose in opinion polls after announcing his candidacy to succeed Abe. He won support from most LDP factions and won robust backing from LDP local chapters.

Nikkei business daily reported Suga plans to re-appoint Taro Aso, the boss of the party’s second biggest faction, as his deputy prime minister and finance minister, the same positions Aso currently holds.

(This story corrects name in 9th paragraph to Suga)

(Additional reporting by Chang-Ran Kim, Chris Gallagher and Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by William Mallard, Lincoln Feast, Gerry Doyle and Timothy Heritage)