Japanese ruling party leader Yoshihide Suga was elected prime minister in a parliamentary vote Wednesday, becoming the country’s first new premier in nearly eight years.
Suga’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party used its majority in the powerful lower house of parliament, which is empowered to pick the premier, to elect him to lead the world’s third largest economy as it tries to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Following the vote, Suga is due to enter the Prime Minister’s Office as the new leader and name his cabinet later in the day.
Suga’s appointment, two days after he was selected as LDP leader, brings the curtain down on outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s record run of almost eight consecutive years in the country’s top job. The 71-year-old Suga, who previously served as Abe’s right-hand man, has pledged to keep in place his former boss’s flexible fiscal stance and ultra-easy monetary policy known as “Abenomics.”
Any sign of a departure from Abenomics could send the yen surging and stocks sliding, triggering a re-evaluation of the outlook for the nation. The Topix index briefly fell when Abe announced on Aug. 28 his intent to resign, but quickly steadied itself since then, with market players seeing Suga as embracing continuity.
In contrast with Abe’s rarefied political pedigree, Suga hails from a rural area in northern Japan and took a job in a cardboard box factory when he first moved to Tokyo. He worked his way through university, before starting his political career as a secretary to a politician. He was first elected to parliament in 1996.
Suga’s home of Akita prefecture, where his family farmed strawberries, is one of the areas most affected by the economic malaise born of Japan’s shrinking and aging population.
While Suga has pledged to pick reformers for his cabinet, Kyodo News and other media reports say he has already decided to retain key players Finance Minister Taro Aso and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, a veteran political broker, will also stay in place under the new administration, the party announced Tuesday.
The role of chief cabinet secretary — which Suga held for a record term — will be given to Katsunobu Kato, a former Finance Ministry bureaucrat who most recently served as health minister, according to public broadcaster NHK.
Abe’s younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, will become defense minister, NHK reported, while current Defense Minister Taro Kono will take over as minister for administrative reform.
Speculation about an early general election has simmered following a surge in support for the cabinet. Suga has repeatedly said it would be difficult to hold a vote while the coronavirus outbreak is still spreading. The power to dissolve parliament for a general election lies with the prime minister, and none need be held for another year.
Suga has been outspoken on some specific issues, including the need for more competition among mobile phone providers to reduce costs for households. He has said Japan has too many regional financial institutions, and he is a strong proponent of introducing casino resorts to bolster tourism.
While Suga has little direct experience in diplomacy, he has said that Japan’s alliance with the U.S. will remain the cornerstone of its foreign policy and that he wants to maintain stable ties with China, his country’s biggest trading partner.
–With assistance from Takashi Hirokawa, Shoko Oda and Chris Kay.