Yoshihide Suga, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s faithful right-hand man who has served as top government spokesman for Abe’s entire second tenure, declared his entry into a Liberal Democratic Party leadership contest Wednesday, brandishing stability and continuity as his chief qualifications to steer the country.
Mentioning Abe’s resignation, Suga described the prime minister leaving in the middle of his term as “regrettable,” adding that a political vacuum “should not be tolerated during a national crisis.”
“I’ve contemplated hard what I should be doing as a politician, and as someone who has supported the Abe administration, to overcome this crisis and bring back an everyday life that brings a sense of relief to all of the people as soon as possible,” the chief cabinet secretary said in a packed news conference Wednesday evening.
“Then I made up my mind that I will run for the Liberal Democratic Party presidency. I’m determined to inherit and move forward the policies to which (LDP) President Abe dedicated himself.”
During the 45-minute news conference, he said his would-be administration’s highest priority would be responding to the novel coronavirus. He additionally vowed to succeed with Abenomics and continue the prime minister’s diplomatic policies based on Japan-U.S. relations.
Suga’s formal announcement has set the stage for a three-person race for the ruling party leadership, which will also select the next prime minister, as the party’s policy council chief Fumio Kishida and former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba already announced their candidacy Tuesday.
Even before the notice was issued, Suga already had an overwhelming lead. Five of the party’s seven major factions — those led by former Secretary-General Hiroyuki Hosoda, deputy prime minister Taro Aso, former environment minister Nobuteru Ishihara, former General Council Chairman Wataru Takeshita and Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai — have already made clear they will endorse Suga, securing him a total of 264 of 394 LDP lawmaker votes.
Suga himself does not have a faction, but has the blessing of an additional 30 or so lawmakers said to embrace his political principles.
These caucuses are betting on Suga to continue down the path carved out by Abe’s relatively stable administration of seven years and eight months, having been one of his closest lieutenants throughout and at a moment when the nation remains battered by the novel coronavirus pandemic, a weak economy and a dicey national-security environment.
Suga additionally benefits from the electoral procedure. The LDP on Tuesday decided which method it would use to carry out the election, invoking an emergency plan that bypasses votes from rank-and-file members.
According to this procedure, the race will be contested by whoever secures the majority of 535 ballots from among 394 Diet members and 141 delegates from across the country’s 47 prefectures — as opposed to those from among 394 Diet members and 394 rank-and-file votes.
Initially there was speculation that the leadership election was going to be a close fight, since several lawmakers such as Defense Minister Taro Kono of the Aso faction and Executive Acting Secretary-General Tomomi Inada of the Hosoda faction were eager to enter the fray.
But Nikai, who was entrusted with setting the rules of the leadership race after Abe’s announcement, apparently wielded his power to settle the race quickly and simply.
The secretary-general’s overwhelming influence within the party and his close bond with the chief Cabinet secretary have been notable in tipping the scales in favor of Suga. Afraid of being ostracized in the next administration over Cabinet personnel assignments and agenda-setting authority, other factions, including those of Aso — who was said to have a rivalry with Suga — and champion Kishida, followed Nikai’s lead.
The top government spokesman repeatedly denied the prospect of him running for the LDP’s top position, but the tide apparently shifted as lawmakers close to him implored him to take on the role, insisting he was in the best position to take the helm of a country plagued with uncertainty.
Suga’s candidacy was a tremendous miscalculation for Kishida, whom Abe had lauded as a leader appropriate for the Reiwa Era and picked as his favorite successor. Abe’s personal approval has long been a strong factor in the policy council chairman’s favor, but the prime minister refused to endorse anyone in the race — a slap in the face for Kishida that essentially handed the prime minister’s seal of approval to Suga.
Following the development, the 98-member Hosoda faction, which is the largest in the party and to which Abe belongs, threw its weight behind Suga and unleashed a wave of support.
“The reason why I’m running is that even though the Abe era has certainly had tremendous accomplishments, the times are changing rapidly and the battle against the novel coronavirus is ongoing,” Kishida said during Nippon Television’s “Miyaneya” daytime show Wednesday.
“There’s a search for a new leader as we are facing this very difficult time, so I decided to throw my hat into the ring,” Kishida explained. “Then, the situation changed,” he added, referring to Suga’s candidacy.
The LDP established Wednesday that notification of the presidential election would be issued on Tuesday of next week and that the vote would take place Sept. 14.
Suga’s image was seared into the popular consciousness last year when he unveiled the name of the new imperial era, acquiring the nickname “Uncle Reiwa.”
Taming the bureaucracy to transform political ambitions into policy has been one of his signature skills since before he became chief Cabinet secretary. Defying bureaucrats bound by precedent and regulation, he has taken the lead in dramatically relaxing Japan’s visa regulations to boost tourism, lower mobile phone bills and implement the furusato nōzei (hometown tax donation) program, which allows tax deductions for those making a donation to their local municipality, since his time as internal affairs minister during the first Abe Cabinet in 2006 and 2007.
As the top government spokesman and Abe’s aide-de-camp since late 2012, Suga appears in front of the camera twice a day every weekday to offer the central government’s views on the topics of the day and fend off questions from the press.
As the longest-serving chief Cabinet secretary, he has been at the forefront of shielding the administration from seemingly relentless criticism over scandals and contentious legislation, making highly effective use of his sullen, tight-lipped demeanor.