TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a loyal aide to outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, won a landslide victory in a ruling party leadership election on Monday, paving the way for him to replace Abe this week.
Suga, 71, who has said he will pursue Abe’s key economic and foreign policies, won 377 votes out of 534 votes cast, and 535 possible votes, in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) election by the party’s members of parliament and representatives of its 47 local chapters.
Rival Shigeru Ishiba, a former defence minister, won 68 votes and ex-foreign minister Fumio Kishida got 89.
Suga is virtually certain to be elected prime minister in a parliamentary vote on Wednesday because of the LDP’s majority in the lower house. He will serve out Abe’s term as party leader through September 2021.
Suga thanked Abe and vowed to push ahead with reforms. Abe, Japan’s longest-serving premier, said last month that he would resign because of ill health, ending nearly eight years in office.
“I was born as the oldest son of a farmer in Akita,” Suga said. “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.”
“I will devote all of myself to work for Japan and its citizens,” he added.
Suga has said he would continue Abe’s signature “Abenomics” strategy of hyper-easy monetary policy, government spending and reforms while juggling the problems of COVID-19 and a slumping economy, and confronting longer-term issues such as Japan’s ageing population and low birth rate.
Japanese manufacturers remained pessimistic for a 14th straight month in September, a Reuters poll showed, underlining the huge challenge the next leader faces.
Suga, whose resume is thin on diplomatic experience, faces geopolitical challenges such as building ties with the winner of the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election and balancing concern over China’s maritime aggressiveness with bilateral economic interdependence.
Speculation is simmering that Suga will call a snap election for parliament’s lower house as soon as next month to boost his chances of winning a full three-year term as LDP chief next year. A vote for the lower chamber must be held by late October 2021.
Suga, the son of a strawberry farmer from northern Japan who got his start in politics as a local assemblyman, has since 2012 held the key post of chief cabinet secretary, acting as Abe’s top government spokesman, coordinating policies and keeping bureaucrats in line.
He has the image as more of a behind-the-scenes operator than a frontline leader but rose in opinion polls after he announced his candidacy to succeed Abe. He won support from most LDP factions, outpacing his rivals.
Suga also won robust backing from LDP local chapters, where Ishiba had originally thought to be strong. According to a tally by public broadcaster NHK, he took 89 votes from the chapter representatives versus 42 for Ishiba and 10 for Kishida.
Suga was scheduled to hold a news conference at 6 p.m. (0900 GMT).
Additional reporting by Chang-Ran Kim, Chris Gallagher and Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by William Mallard, Lincoln Feast and Gerry Doyle
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