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Suga on course to be Japan's new PM after winning LDP leadership race

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga responds to applause after being elected as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's president on Sept. 14, 2020, in Tokyo. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Yoshihide Suga, the chief Cabinet secretary of outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was elected Monday by ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers and representatives as the party's new president, setting him on course to become Japan's next leader later this week.

    In a vote at a meeting of LDP lawmakers of both chambers of parliament, Suga easily beat his two rivals -- former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida -- as he pledged to keep a good balance between fighting the coronavirus pandemic and promoting economic activities.

    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, resulting in Suga receiving 377 votes, Kishida 89, and Ishiba 68.

    Calling the spread of the novel coronavirus a national crisis, Suga said, "We must inherit and promote the efforts that Prime Minister Abe has made so that people can overcome the crisis and live a safe and stable life."

    Suga, 71, also said he will proceed with government reforms and deregulation in Japan. "I'll create a Cabinet that works for people," he said.

    In a postelection press conference, Suga expressed his determination to push forward deregulation by including in his Cabinet "reform-minded people who are found in various factions."

    "Since there is a change of prime minister, I will venture the promotion of people who are fit to carry out my policies," he said, while expressing his intent to work toward launching a digital agency and tackle issues including revising the country's Constitution.

    Suga plans to retain LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai and Diet Affairs Committee Chairman Hiroshi Moriyama in an LDP leadership reshuffle Tuesday, LDP sources said.

    Suga also intends to appoint Hakubun Shimomura, chairman of the party's Election Strategy Committee, as chairman of the Policy Research Council, and Tsutomu Sato, a former internal affairs and communications minister, as chairman of the General Council, according to the sources.

    In the press conference, Suga indicated he may not dissolve the lower house soon for a general election, saying, "I think it would be difficult unless experts view that the (virus) has been fully brought under control."

    "It is important to rebuild the economy while also containing the coronavirus at the same time. It's not something I will do as soon as the virus is brought under control either," he added.

    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.

    While attention is now focused on the likely lineup of Suga's Cabinet, 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.

    The new prime minister will be tasked with challenges inherited from Abe in the diplomatic front, including dealing with China's assertive actions in the East China Sea and building upon ties with the United States, which is holding its presidential election in November.

    He will also have to decide what to do with the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, which have been postponed one year to the summer of 2021 due to the pandemic.

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

    A total of 394 ballots were given to LDP lawmakers and 141 to delegates of local chapters, while the party's rank-and-file members were excluded from the vote this time to speed up the process amid the coronavirus pandemic.

    Suga secured his win among the local chapters' votes as well after most of them held primaries, with each chapter deciding 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, a vocal critic of Abe and 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.

    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.

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