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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.

The other key contenders so far are LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, both of whom expressed a desire to run shortly after Abe’s surprise announcement.

Suga’s entry is rooted in the party’s ardent desire to build upon the continuity built around Abe, whose seven years and eight months in office brought a stability to politics that had been more or less absent for years. As one of Abe’s chief lieutenants, the 71-year-old Akita native will campaign on a ticket that promises continuity and stability, said Sebastian Maslow, a senior lecturer in international relations at Sendai Shirayuri Women’s University.

His candidacy, Maslow added, means he has likely secured the backing of influential members in the party, possibly including Nikai.

“These two promises will certainly attract support during a leadership transition in times of a pandemic,” Maslow said. “In light of his proven policy expertise and long track record handling the Kantei (Prime Minister’s Office), Suga will be considered a suitable caretaker government until the end of the LDP president’s term next year September.”

But if the next prime minister calls for a snap election before that, there would have to be another LDP election, raising the possibility that whoever is chosen in the interim will be the prime minister for the long term. The current term of Lower House members expires in October 2021.

Before Sunday, Suga had persistently denied he would throw his hat into the ring. Yet at the same time, his media exposure has increased since last month, with appearances on TV news programs and frequent media interviews. He is also widely known for his daily news briefings and the nickname “Uncle Reiwa,” which was coined last year when he unveiled the name of Japan’s new imperial era.

Suga is considered adept at crisis management, and his signature ability to tame the bureaucracy so political ambitions can be transformed into policy has contributed to his strong relationships with Nikai and Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner in the ruling coalition.

“For someone who has supported (the prime minister) for all these years, it is truly regrettable, but I’ll fulfill my duties with all the strength I have to protect the people’s lives and livelihoods,” Suga wrote in blog entry Saturday, breaking silence on his ambitions after Abe’s announcement.

The LDP will hold a general council meeting Tuesday to decide how the election will be carried out. A candidate must be endorsed by at least 20 Diet members to qualify, and the election will reportedly be held around Sept. 15.

The party is then likely to convene an extraordinary Diet session to formally nominate the new leader and prime minister on Sept. 17, Jiji Press reported.

In a typical LDP presidential election, the candidates compete during 12-day campaigns to win the majority of the 788 votes comprising its 394 Diet members and 394 rank-and-file members.

In an emergency, however, the party can bypass the rank-and-file members, whose ballots must be mailed in, and proceed with a vote held by Diet members and three representatives from each of the 47 prefectural chapters, for a total of 535 ballots.

The party is widely expected to choose the latter option, with heavyweight members citing the need to act quickly to prevent a political vacuum in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. This would be a devastating blow to Ishiba, who is popular with the rank-and-file and general public but is disdained by many in his party for unabashed criticism of Abe.

Appearing on the on Nippon Television program News Zero on Friday night, Ishiba insisted rank-and-file votes should be counted in the leadership race.

Earlier Sunday, Hiroshige Seko, an LDP heavyweight in the House of Councilors, said on NHK’s Sunday Debate that the next prime minister should have experience in managing the government or party affairs as well as diplomacy.

That fits the profile of Kishida, the former foreign minister who chairs the party’s policy council. Kishida is regarded as Abe’s preferred successor, but whether he can win the support of Nikai’s faction and other factions is uncertain.

“I believe it’s appropriate to choose someone who has served in these positions for some time,” Seko said. “As for overlooking the government, I mean finance minister or chief Cabinet secretary. As for overlooking the party, maybe someone with experience being secretary-general or policy research council chief. As for having insights into foreign affairs, definitely someone who has experience being foreign minister.”

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