The son of a strawberry farmer who started his working life in a cardboard box factory will probably become the next prime minister of Japan after the most powerful factions in the ruling Liberal Democratic party endorsed Yoshihide Suga.
The 71-year-old Mr Suga, who declared his candidacy for the party leadership at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, has been a central figure in Shinzo Abe’s government as chief cabinet secretary for the past eight years.
The party’s rapid convergence on Mr Suga, following Mr Abe’s decision last week to stand down as prime minister because of ill health, signals that it wants continuity as Japan struggles with the Covid-19 crisis.
“I will take on the initiatives of Prime Minister Abe and do everything I can to take them forward,” Mr Suga declared. He said he would assume responsibility for Abenomics, the prime minister’s economic programme, and would not make any changes to the government’s existing accord with the Bank of Japan.
Although Mr Suga still has to win a vote among 535 LDP members of parliament and regional party chiefs, to be held on September 14, endorsements from four of the five largest party factions give him a powerful advantage.
Mr Abe’s own Hosoda faction said it was supporting Mr Suga, along with the factions of Taro Aso, the finance minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, the foreign minister, and Toshihiro Nikai, LDP secretary-general. Together, the factions already declaring for Mr Suga have 264 members.
LDP politicians do not always vote in line with their faction — as the semi-formal groupings within the party are known — but many have said they would on this occasion, in order to replace Mr Abe rapidly and tackle Covid-19.
Although Mr Suga is closely allied with Mr Abe, he has a dramatically different background. Whereas Mr Abe is a political princeling, whose grandfather was prime minister, Mr Suga worked his way up from nothing.
Born in rural Akita prefecture, he moved to Tokyo and paid his own way through university by working part-time. He became the secretary to a politician and eventually entered local politics in Yokohama, before winning election to the Diet in 1996.
Mr Suga is known as a workaholic and his mastery of behind-the-scenes politics, picking and choosing top bureaucrats and LDP candidates. He concentrates on domestic, pocketbook issues such as bringing down electricity and mobile phone bills, rather than the diplomatic manoeuvres and conservative, nationalist causes for which Mr Abe is famous.
While Mr Suga is regarded as a safe pair of hands, well-suited to handling Covid-19, some backbenchers worry whether he has the charisma and TV presence to act as the party’s electoral frontman.
The next leader will serve out the remainder of Mr Abe’s term before another LDP election in autumn 2021, when all party members will be able to vote.
Whoever wins the leadership election will therefore be on probation. “It’s not that the party is planning now to choose someone else in a year’s time,” said one LDP politician who is backing the chief cabinet secretary.
“If Mr Suga attracts public support then of course the LDP will elect him again. However, it depends on results.”