Yoshihide Suga, the chief Cabinet secretary who has been Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's right-hand man for nearly eight years, on Sunday emerged as a leading candidate to take over the nation’s highest political position.

After two days of speculation, news reports said the government's top spokesman told Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai he is intending to run for party president, and therefore prime minister.

His candidacy is seen as a major development in the race to succeed Abe, who abruptly announced Friday that he is stepping down because of a chronic illness. Abe refrained from nominating a successor and said he would not use his influence the selection process for his replacement.