Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, has pledged to keep coronavirus infections in check and kick-start an economy in recession as Shinzo Abe left office after a record period.
In his initial remarks, having been elected by parliament earlier Wednesday, Mr Suga stressed that he will be a cabinet of continuity, in an effort to advance Mr Abe’s policies.
“We need to continue the Abe administration’s policies. I think that’s the mission I’m called for,” Suga told reporters.
He sidestepped questions about the possibility of quick elections to consolidate his position, saying that “what the public wants now is that we succeed in ending the pandemic quickly while steadily recovering the economy.”
“Both preventing the spread of infections and rebuilding the economy is what they want most … We hope to do our best in this area first.”
He paid little attention to political ideology or foreign policy goals, but instead promised administrative reforms, an end to “bureaucratic silos” and greater digitalization of government.
He said he would strive for continued strong ties with Washington and stable relationships with China and Russia.
But he did not provide details or mention any ongoing tensions with South Korea, or any details of its defense strategy, particularly with regard to North Korea.
‘Tough issues’ ahead
The 71-year-old takes top office after decades in politics, most recently in the role of cabinet secretary, where he was both a key enforcer of government policy and a spokesperson.
Mr. Suga, a longtime adviser and right-hand man to Shinzo Abe, has said his run was inspired by the desire to continue the policies of his predecessor.
His new cabinet is full of familiar faces, with Mr Abe’s foreign and finance ministers staying on, and the outgoing prime minister’s brother appointed to head the Ministry of Defense.
Mr Suga won an easy vote in parliament, where his ruling Liberal Democratic Party has a dominant majority.
But he now faces a series of tough challenges, from immediate problems like the coronavirus and the delayed Olympics to longer-term problems, including a shrinking population.
“The Suga cabinet is struggling with tough issues,” said Shinichi Nishikawa, a professor of political science at Meiji University in Tokyo.
“The coronavirus is a top priority to tackle. On the diplomatic front, there are many uncertainties, including the US presidential election,” he told AFP.
Mr Abe formally resigned on Wednesday, along with his cabinet, ending his record number in office with one more year in office.
He chose to resign after a recurrence of ulcerative colitis, a bowel condition that has plagued him for a long time and also contributed to an early end to his first term, after just a year.
He gives the reins to a man who differs in many ways.
While Mr Abe gave priority to foreign relations, Mr Suga is a diplomatic novice who negotiates more comfortably between ministries and resolves bureaucratic roadblocks.
And unlike Mr. Abe, a political blueblood, Mr. Suga is the son of a strawberry farmer father and teacher mother who grew up in rural Akita and worked in a factory while in college.
Mr Suga’s new cabinet provides further evidence of his desire for continuity, with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi remaining along with Finance Minister Taro Aso.
Only two women were appointed – as Olympic Games and Justice Ministers – fewer than the three who served in Mr. Abe’s last government.
On the economic front, Mr. Suga would be committed to his predecessor’s signature “Abenomics” program, with massive government spending, massive monetary easing, and cutting red tape.
Diplomatically, he is expected to prioritize the most important relationship with the United States, the one to be president after November’s election.
He faces a tougher question about ties with China, with a global hardening of opinion against Beijing following the coronavirus and the unrest in Hong Kong.
Mr Abe, who served as prime minister for a total of eight years, will remain as legislator, with some arguing that he could undertake diplomatic missions.
As he prepared to resign on Wednesday morning, Mr Abe said he had “given all my strength” and ended his term “with a sense of pride”.
“I owe everything to the Japanese people.”