JAPANESE Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was elected leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) by an overwhelming majority, ushering in the country’s first change of prime minister in almost eight years.
The party, which has ruled mostly uninterrupted since 1955, was set to use its parliamentary majority to install Mr. Suga as prime minister in a separate vote Wednesday. Mr. Suga’s appointment will bring to an end the record run of his ailing boss, Shinzo Abe, who has served since 2012 and forged an identity on the global stage that the world’s third-largest economy had often lacked.
“I made a late decision to run, but before I knew it I was out in front,” Mr. Suga told supporters just before LDP lawmaker started voting. “I would like to create a government that’s trusted by the people.”
A farmer’s son long known as Mr. Abe’s back-room fixer, Mr. Suga won 377 of the 535 available votes Monday, the LDP said. While Mr. Suga headed into a three-way race with little voter support, media polls show the public has also begun to swing behind him. His two rivals were former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba — known for his frank criticism of the Abe government — and ex-Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
Even before Mr. Suga declared his candidacy on Sept. 2, he had the backing of five of the party’s seven factions and enough votes lined up to win. The only factions that didn’t back him were the ones led by the other contenders — Ishiba, with 19 members, and Kishida, with 47.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Taro Aso stoked speculation about an early general election, saying it could happen “soon” to legitimize the new administration, Kyodo News reported. While Mr. Suga has repeatedly said the public doesn’t want to go to the polls during the coronavirus pandemic, a surge in support for the cabinet gave rise to ideas the new premier would call one in the near future.
Mr. Suga inherits an economy in a grim state as COVID-19 reverses many of the gains of the past few years, effectively closing down what had been a growing inbound tourism industry. He has pledged to fight the virus while helping businesses stay afloat.
Mr. Suga has said he will continue the ultra-easy “Abenomics” monetary policy. He has said that more should be done on monetary and fiscal policy, if needed, to protect jobs and companies during the virus crisis. Mr. Suga has said reviving the economy should be prioritized over tackling debt at this point.
Any sign of a departure from the path of Abenomics could send the yen surging and stocks sliding, triggering a re-evaluation of the outlook for the nation.
Though Mr. Suga is largely seen as a continuity candidate, he has been outspoken on some issues, including the need for more competition among mobile phone providers. He has said Japan has too many regional financial institutions, and is a strong proponent of introducing casino resorts to bolster tourism.
While Mr. Suga has little direct experience in diplomacy, he has said that Japan’s alliance with the U.S. will remain the cornerstone of its foreign policy. He also referred in a policy pamphlet to maintaining relations with neighboring countries, especially its largest trading partner, China.
“Even if the leader changes, we cannot afford to change our posture with the United States,” Ichiro Fujisaki, a former Japanese ambassador to the U.S., told Bloomberg Television. “Being surrounded by North Korea, China and Russia, the U.S.-Japan relation has to be the cornerstone of our foreign policy.” — Bloomberg