Yoshihide Suga acknowledges the crowd as he is elected new head of Japan's ruling party the LDP

Suga set to become Japanese PM after winning party vote

Japan's ruling party has elected chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga its new leader, making him all but certain to replace Shinzo Abe as the country's next prime minister.

Mr Suga easily won the vote, taking 377 of the 534 valid votes cast by Liberal Democratic Party politicians and regional representatives, significantly ahead of his two rivals.

Given his party's legislative majority, he is expected to handily win a parliamentary vote on Wednesday and become prime minister, succeeding Mr Abe, who is resigning for health reasons.

The 71-year-old has pledged a continuation of Mr Abe's policies, a promise he repeated in accepting the party's nomination as leader.

"With this national crisis of the coronavirus, we can't afford to have a political vacuum," he said.

"In order to overcome the crisis and give the Japanese people a sense of relief, we need to succeed in what Prime Minister Abe has been implementing," he added.

"This is my mission."

Even before he formally announced his run, the 71-year-old Mr Suga had won the support of key factions within the ruling party, with his candidacy viewed as promising stability.

The LDP chose to poll only its lawmakers in parliament and three representatives from each of the country's 47 regions, eschewing a broader ballot including rank-and-file members that officials said would have taken too long to organise.

The format was seen as further bolstering Mr Suga against his two competitors, former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida.

Mr Abe, who was Japan's longest-serving prime minister with more than eight years in power over two terms, declined to endorse any one candidate.

But he pledged to "fully support" Mr Suga after his win, saying he had watched him "working hard and quietly for the nation and people" in his role as chief cabinet secretary.

"Let's build a shining Japan by overcoming the coronavirus crisis, with new LDP chief Suga at the helm," he added.

Mr Abe made the shock announcement he would step down with a year left in his mandate in late August, saying a recurrence of the ulcerative colitis he has long battled made it impossible for him to stay on.

Analysts say Suga is unlikely to make any major agenda reversals, and the candidate himself has said his run is intended to ensure a continuation of Mr Abe's key policies.