Suga, Abe's right-hand man, looks set to replace him as PM


Tokyo | Japan's governing party on Monday anointed Yoshihide Suga, the current chief Cabinet secretary, as its choice for the next prime minister, settling on what it saw as a safe pair of hands to grapple with the country's many economic and strategic challenges.

Two weeks after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was stepping down after a record-long tenure, Mr Suga was overwhelmingly elected as leader of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party during a conclave of members of Parliament and select delegates at a luxury hotel in central Tokyo.$zoom_0.246%2C$multiply_0.7214%2C$ratio_1.776846%2C$width_1059%2C$x_0%2C$y_95/t_crop_custom/e_sharpen:25%2Cq_42%2Cf_auto/9884862f598c4f6ab08b76defb8095e91e4491d5
Mr Suga after casting his own vote in the leadership ballot on Monday. Getty

The party handily controls Parliament, virtually guaranteeing that Mr Suga, 71, will be elected prime minister this week during a special session of the legislature.

Monday's vote put the party's imprimatur on a decision that had been made not by its broad rank and file but was instead negotiated in the back rooms of Tokyo's political elite, perhaps well before Mr Abe had even decided to resign late last month.

Mr Suga became the odds-on favourite to succeed Mr Abe not long after the prime minister's announcement. A path was cleared for him inside the party when his most serious competitor, Taro Aso, the deputy prime minister and a former prime minister, said he would not stand for election.

Mr Aso, a sharp-elbowed political boss with a history of hair-raising gaffes, controls one of several major factions within the party. His decision to stand aside for Mr Suga raised suspicions that the move was part of a quid pro quo that would grant him some control over choosing the new Cabinet.

Mr Suga's front-runner standing was further solidified days later when the party's secretary, Toshihiro Nikai, announced that he would invoke an emergency provision in the organisation's by-laws to exclude rank-and-file members from voting for the new leader.

That decision, which restricted the party election to serving members of Parliament and three representatives from each prefecture, effectively shut out Shigeru Ishiba, the one dark horse candidate who could have posed a challenge to Mr Suga.

Mr Ishiba, a former defence minister who consistently had the highest approval ratings among the declared candidates, is disliked by many party insiders because of his criticism of Mr Abe's policies. Mr Abe narrowly defeated Mr Ishiba in the party's 2012 leadership election.

Mr Suga has served as Mr Abe's chief Cabinet secretary for nearly eight years, a position that combines the power of a chief of staff with the public visibility of the country's top spokesman. Behind the scenes, he has been a key figure in the creation and implementation of national policy during the Abe administration.

Now, as prime minister, Mr Suga will have to hit the ground running. He will take office in the middle of a global pandemic that has devastated Japan's economy, effectively erasing years of growth under Mr Abe.

The country is also facing deepening pressure from China and North Korea. And it is losing a prime minister who built his foreign policy legacy in part on his successful management of President Donald Trump, the mercurial leader of Japan's most important strategic ally.

Mr Suga's attention in the near term is most likely to be consumed by the country's economic problems, said Atsuo Ito, an independent political analyst. That makes it less clear how forcefully Mr Suga will pursue Mr Abe's security policies, such as pushing for Japan to amend its pacifist constitution.

With Mr Suga's election, his party is hoping to soothe a public worried that the prolonged political stability of the Abe era could crumble. Before Mr Abe's election in 2012, the country went through six prime ministers in six years.

Mr Suga has said that he plans to continue Mr Abe's policies largely unchanged. On the economy, that means loose monetary policy, aggressive fiscal stimulus and the overhaul of Japan's sclerotic bureaucracy and corporations.

The New York Times