Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga acknowledges his election as new head of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo on Monday.AP/Eugene Hoshiko, Pool

LDP elects Suga as leader to succeed Abe

TOKYO — The ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Monday elected Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga as its new president and ultimately Japan's new leader to replace outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

In a vote at a meeting of LDP lawmakers of both chambers of the Diet, Suga secured a comfortable victory over his two rivals -- Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister, and Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister. A majority of the LDP's factions gave the top government spokesman their backing after Abe said last month he would step down for health reasons.

Suga won 377 votes, Kishida 89, and Ishiba 68.

Suga's election as prime minister at an extraordinary Diet session on Wednesday is almost certain as the governing party controls the House of Representatives, the more powerful lower chamber, and holds a majority in the House of Councillors with its coalition partner Komeito.

The LDP election became a mere formality for endorsing the party factions' decisions to back Suga, 71.

Ballots were cast by 394 LDP lawmakers and 141 delegates of local chapters, with the party's rank-and-file members excluded this time to speed up the process amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Most local chapters held primaries, although it was up to each chapter to decide whether to give all three allotted ballots to a single candidate or to multiple candidates in proportion to primary results.

The election was prompted by Abe's announcement on Aug 28 that he would step down due to a relapse of an intestinal disease called ulcerative colitis, just days after he became the longest-serving prime minister in the country's history in terms of consecutive days in office.

Kishida, 63, who decided not to run in the party's previous leadership election to make way for Abe and asked for his support in the election this time, and Ishiba, 63, who is popular among the public but has less support among his fellow party lawmakers, expressed an interest in running in the LDP presidential election shortly after Abe's announcement.

But Suga, who does not belong to a party faction, quickly emerged as the front-runner while showing little originality in his election pledges, promising to continue Abe's policies including his "Abenomics" package of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reform.

LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai was among the faction leaders who declared support for Suga early on, and the party's largest faction led by Hiroyuki Hosoda, a former secretary general, with 98 members followed, setting the course for Suga to become the next leader of Japan.

Attention is now focused on the likely lineup of Suga's Cabinet, although how long its members will remain in their positions is unclear.

Suga's term as LDP president is limited to the remainder of Abe's current three-year term through September 2021 and a lower house election must be held before Oct 21 that year.