Yoshihide Suga, in line to become Japan’s new leader, vows to stay course

Newly elected head of Liberal Democratic Party Yoshihide Suga poses for photos following his press conference at its headquarters after the party's leadership election in Tokyo Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. Suga was elected as the new head of Japan’s ruling party on Monday, all but assuring that he will become the country's new prime minister when a parliamentary election is held later in the week. (Nicolas Datiche/Pool Photo via AP)

Japanese ruling party head Yoshihide Suga, in line to become the next prime minister, appeared set on Tuesday to continue his predecessor’s policies by keeping key cabinet ministers and party officials in their posts, as he had promised.

Suga, long a loyal aide and chief cabinet secretary under outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, on Monday won a landslide victory to take over the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He pledged to carry on many of Abe’s programs, including his signature “Abenomics” economic strategy.

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He faces a vast array of challenges, including tackling COVID-19 while reviving a battered economy and dealing with a rapidly aging society in which nearly a third of the population is older than 65.

Finance Minister Taro Aso and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi are likely to stay in their positions, according to multiple media reports, as is LDP secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai. Yasutoshi Nishimura is likely to be reappointed as economy minister.

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Suga may name Health Minister Katsunobu Kato, who has become well known to the public as the face of Japan’s efforts to tackle the coronavirus, as chief cabinet secretary, Nippon TV said. Kato is close to Suga, under whom he served as deputy chief cabinet secretary.

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“Many different elements are needed,” Suga said on Monday, when asked about who should replace him. “One is their fit with the prime minister, but thinking about it overall, they also need to have broad strengths, that will be the most calming.”

Suga is virtually certain to be elected prime minister in a parliamentary vote on Wednesday because of the LDP’s lower-house majority. He will serve out Abe’s term as party leader through September 2021.

Known more for his work behind the scenes, Suga emerged as favorite to replace Abe, Japan’s longest-serving premier, after Abe said last month he would resign because of ill health, ending nearly eight years in office.

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There is widespread speculation that Suga could take advantage of strong support ratings to dissolve the lower house of parliament and call snap elections as soon as next month to earn a full three-year term as LDP head, but he appears wary.

“What’s important now is to contain the pandemic while also reviving the economy. I don’t think we can immediately (dissolve the lower house) just because the pandemic is contained,” Suga said. “That’s a decision that must be made looking comprehensively at various factors.”

A vote for the chamber must be held by late October 2021.

Suga, who has little diplomatic experience, also faces geopolitical challenges such as building ties with the winner of the U.S. presidential election and balancing concern over China’s maritime aggressiveness with bilateral economic interdependence.

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The son of a strawberry farmer from northern Japan, Suga has since 2012 been chief cabinet secretary, acting as Abe’s top government spokesman, coordinating policies and keeping bureaucrats in line.

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“I was born as the oldest son of a farmer in Akita. Without any knowledge or blood ties, I launched into the world of politics, starting from zero – and have been able to become leader of the LDP, with all its traditions and history,” said Suga, whose modest origins differ from many LDP lawmakers.

“I will devote all of myself to work for Japan and its citizens,” he said after the party vote.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies, Antoni Slodkowski, Chang-ran Kim and Chris Gallagher. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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