Party Insiders Put Yoshihide Suga on Brink of Being Japan’s Prime Minister

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 because of ill health, 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.

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.

“Due to his illness, the prime minister has had to step down midcourse. However, we cannot allow a political vacuum as the nation faces the crisis of the coronavirus’s spread,” Mr. Suga said in a brief speech after the vote tally was announced.

“I recognize that it is my duty to continue to advance the framework pushed forward by Prime Minister Abe so that we can overcome this crisis,” he added.

Monday’s vote put the party’s imprimatur on a decision that had been made not by its broad rank and file, but in Tokyo’s back rooms by its political elite, perhaps well before Mr. Abe had even decided to resign late last month after a record-long tenure in office.

Mr. Suga became the odds-on favorite 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 finance minister and a former prime minister himself, 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.
Taro Aso, a former prime minister, helped clear a path for Mr. Suga to become party leader.Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

Mr. Suga’s front-runner standing was further solidified when the party’s secretary, Toshihiro Nikai, announced that he would invoke an emergency provision in the organization’s bylaws 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 defense 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 himself does not caucus with any particular faction, but his candidacy benefited from the party’s overall antipathy toward Mr. Ishiba and the low polling numbers of the other contenders, said Shigenobu Tamura, a former party member and political analyst.

That does not mean that Mr. Suga is free to do as he pleases, however. “Everyone supported him, so he will need to consider how to repay them” as he forms his cabinet, Mr. Tamura said.

Addressing reporters after his election, Mr. Suga rejected the idea that his victory was the result of deal making, instead pointing to his humble origins and long government experience as the reason for his victory.

“As I said at the outset, my job is to break down bureaucratic divisions, vested interests and the harmful influence of precedent,” Mr. Suga said, adding, “I’m completely free of the ill effects of factional influence.”

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.
Mr. Suga, right, and Shigeru Ishiba during a debate on Saturday. The restricted party vote essentially shut out Mr. Ishiba, who has popular support among Japanese voters.Pool photo by Charly Triballeau

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 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 burned 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. Among those policies is a program aimed at making it easier for women to join the work force — efforts that have met with mixed results.

The party also chose Mr. Suga as a way to protect the power and prerogatives it had built up under Mr. Abe, Mr. Ito said.

“He won’t fundamentally change the structure of the Abe administration,” he said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe casting his ballot at his party’s leadership election.Pool photo by Eugene Hoshiko

Mr. Suga’s victory on Monday earned him a spot at the top of the party through the end of Mr. Abe’s current term in September 2021. At that time, Mr. Suga would have to stand again for the L.D.P. presidency in a regular party election.

Political analysts believe he may seek to solidify his position by calling a snap election as early as next month. Although Mr. Suga has said he will not call an election until the coronavirus is under control, party heavyweights, including Mr. Aso, have raised the possibility.

Public opinion, which had been severely critical of Mr. Abe’s handling of the pandemic, has become more forgiving as infection numbers have remained relatively low and nostalgia has set in. Mr. Suga may hope to profit from the recent bounce in Mr. Abe’s poll numbers, which have risen from the mid-30s to as high as the mid-50s in recent days, according to polling by Kyodo News.

A touch of that nostalgia was apparent as the Liberal Democratic Party delegates gathered to cast their votes on Monday in a large hotel ballroom.

The delegates — some wearing surgical masks and others face shields to protect against the coronavirus — were called up one after the other to a stage lined with white voting booths, where they wrote down their candidate’s name and put it in a wooden ballot box.

Mr. Abe and Mr. Suga voted when their names were called, but otherwise sat among the other representatives. After the results were announced and the two men delivered remarks, the ritualistic proceedings gave way to a brief highlight reel showing Mr. Abe shaking hands with world leaders, visiting disaster victims and crouching with schoolchildren.

Mr. Suga then presented Mr. Abe with a bouquet of flowers, and the men, along with Mr. Ishiba and the other losing contender, Fumio Kishida, clasped hands and raised them above their heads.
From left, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Mr. Abe, Mr. Suga and Mr. Ishiba after the election’s results were announced. Pool photo by Eugene Hoshiko

Hisako Ueno and Hikari Hida contributed reporting.