Japan’s ruling party has elected Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga as its new leader, almost certainly replacing Shinzo Abe as the country’s next prime minister.
Mr Suga easily won the vote, with 377 of the 534 valid votes of the Liberal Democratic Party’s legislatures and regional representatives, significantly more than 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 stepping down on health grounds.
The 71-year-old has pledged to continue Mr. Abe’s policies, a promise he reiterated by accepting the party’s nomination as leader.
“With this national coronavirus crisis, we cannot afford a political vacuum,” he said.
“In order to overcome the crisis and give the Japanese people a sense of relief, we must succeed in what Prime Minister Abe has implemented,” he added.
“This is my mission.”
Even before formally announcing his run, Mr Suga had gained the support of major factions within the ruling party, with his candidacy as promising stability.
The LDP chose to question only its lawmakers in parliament and three representatives from each of the country’s 47 regions, shunning a broader vote including regular members that officials said would have taken too long to organize.
‘A radiant Japan’
The format was seen as further bolstering Mr Suga against his two rivals, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and LDP Policy Chief Fumio Kishida.
Mr Abe, who shattered records as Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister with more than eight years in power for two terms, declined to endorse a candidate.
But he pledged to “fully support” Mr. Suga after his victory, saying he had seen him “work hard and quietly for the nation and the people” in his role as cabinet secretary.
“Let’s build a shiny Japan by overcoming the coronavirus crisis, with new LDP chief Suga at the helm,” he added.
Mr. Abe made the shock announcement that he would step down at the end of August with one year left in his mandate, saying a recurrence of the ulcerative colitis he has long fought against made it impossible for him to stay on.
Analysts say Mr. Suga is unlikely to make any major reversals in the agenda, and the candidate himself has said his run is to ensure the continuation of Abe’s key policies.
The next Prime Minister faces a series of complex challenges.
The country was already in recession before the coronavirus pandemic, and many of the achievements of Abenomics’ signature economic policies are now in jeopardy.
Mr Suga has said getting the economy started will be a top priority, along with containment of the virus – essential if the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics is scheduled to start in July 2021.
There are also diplomatic challenges on the agenda, including protecting the US alliance and maintaining ties with China, while global opinion against Beijing hardens after the coronavirus and Hong Kong unrest.
“It’s a difficult time for Japan as the US is putting pressure on China,” said Makoto Iokibe, a professor of political and diplomatic history at Hyogo University.
“But simply following the path Washington is following and fueling tensions with China is not in Japan’s interest,” he told AFP.
A significant unknown remains whether Mr Suga will decide to hold early general elections to consolidate his position and avoid being seen as a janitor who has to undergo a new vote in a year – when Mr Abe’s mandate would be past.
Several senior government officials have raised the possibility, perhaps as early as October, but Mr Suga has been cautious so far.
Much of Japan’s troubled opposition has recently converged into a new bloc, hoping to present a stronger challenge to a ruling party that has ruled over the past six decades save a few years.
But the LDP would still be highly preferred in new elections, even though Mr Suga’s personal appeal to voters remains an open question.
“Mr Suga is able to implement policies by controlling bureaucrats, but his weakness is in winning the hearts of the public,” said Mr Iokibe.