(Bloomberg) – Yoshihide Suga, a top aide to outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, formally announced his bid to replace his boss, with the party’s powerful factions indicating they’ll deliver him enough votes to win the race.
Suga, 71, told reporters Wednesday that he was running for Liberal Democratic Party president, as he appeared to have racked up an almost insurmountable lead over his two declared rivals for a party election set for Sept. 14.
Victory would all but ensure Suga’s rise to become Japan’s first new prime minister in almost eight years, since the ruling LDP will hold sway over a parliament vote on or about Sept 16 to confirm the new leader. The only other declared candidates — former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and ex-Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida — face long odds as the party’s biggest factions line up for Suga.
While Ishiba has led public surveys about Japan’s next leader, the party has quickly coalesced behind Suga after Abe’s surprise decision Friday to resign due to health problems. Between factions that have already indicated support for Suga and the dozen or so lawmakers in his own non-aligned camp, his tally already stands at 276 votes, about 10 more than he would need to assume leadership of the ruling party.
Suga served as the backroom enforcer who helped Abe turn an unlikely comeback into a record-breaking run as prime minister. He fended off daily questions as the Abe government as it weathered several scandals during its nearly eight years in power.
The LDP on Tuesday opted for an expedited voting system that favors lawmakers over rank-and-file members. Ishiba won the rank-and-file vote over Abe in 2012, but lost the overall race. Suga has already secured support from five of LDP’s seven biggest factions, excluding those led by Ishiba and Kishida.
Factions in Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party
Members within outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party will be a key factor in deciding his successor
Abe first resigned from office in 2007, citing a digestive disorder. When he returned in 2012, expectations for an extended spell at the top were low. Suga’s management of the party and tighter control of the bureaucracy were among the factors that kept Abe’s administration on an even keel.
Having served as Abe’s top political captain, Suga would be the most seamless successor in terms of economic policy. Suga has frequently emphasized the importance of reviving the pandemic-hit economy.
He’s also shown an occasional willingness to play to the public by calling for cheaper mobile phone rates and helping exempt food from the 2019 sales tax increase. Expanding inbound tourism and building Japan’s first gambling resorts are also among his pet projects.
Suga has largely echoed Abe’s foreign policy views, although he has so far avoided hawkish moves that might alarm neighbors China and South Korea, such as visiting the controversial Yasukuni war shrine, seen by many in Asia as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
— With assistance by Karen Leigh, and Emi Nobuhiro