TOKYO (AP) – Japan’s Parliament elected Yoshihide Suga as prime minister Wednesday, replacing long-serving leader Shinzo Abe with his right-hand man. Suga, keeping his straight face, bowed deeply several times when the results were announced first in the lower house, the more powerful of the two parliamentary chambers where he has a seat, as his fellow ruling lawmakers applauded. He was also confirmed in the upper house.
Suga had been chosen Monday to lead the ruling party, virtually assuring he would succeed Abe, who resigned because of ill health. Suga, who was chief Cabinet secretary in Abe’s government, is to launch his own Cabinet later Wednesday.
Suga has stressed his background as a farmer’s son and a self-made politician in promising to serve the interests of ordinary people and rural communities. He has said he will pursue Abe’s unfinished policies and that his priorities will be fighting the coronavirus and turning around an economy battered by the pandemic.
Abe said before the change was official that as a lawmaker, he will support Suga’s government and he thanked the people for their understanding and their strong support for Suga.
“I devoted my body and soul for the economic recovery and diplomacy to protect Japan’s national interest every single day since we returned to power,” Abe told reporters at the prime minister’s office before heading into his final Cabinet meeting. “During this time, I was able to tackle various challenges together with the people, and I’m proud of myself.”
In a brief farewell ceremony, Abe was presented with a bouquet as all Prime Minister’s Office staff and Suga lined up and applauded until he disappeared into his car.
Suga gained the support of party heavyweights early in the campaign on expectations he would continue Abe’s line. Suga has been a loyal supporter since Abe’s first stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007. Abe’s first tenure ended abruptly because of illness, and Suga helped him return as prime minister in 2012.
Abe, 65, said last month his health was improving after changing to a new IV treatment for his ulcerative colitis but he decided to resign because he faces ongoing treatment and physical weakness as a result.
Suga, 71, praised Abe’s diplomacy and economic policies when asked what he would like to accomplish himself and says he will set up a new government agency to speed up Japan’s lagging digital transformation.
He does not belong to any wing within the ruling party and said he will break down vested interests and rules that hamper reforms. In reshuffling key posts with the party, however, Suga evenly allocated top posts to key factions, a balancing act seen as a return of favor for their support in the leadership race.
Suga said he will appoint “reform-minded, hard-working people” to the new Cabinet. All but five of the 20 expected posts are new faces. Eleven members in the last Abe administration are to be retained or shifted to different ministerial posts and had served one of reshuffled Abe Cabinets.
Media reports say some key ministers, including Finance Minister Taro Aso, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto, and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, the son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, will stay.
Katsunobu Kato, a former Finance Ministry bureaucrat and Abe’s close aide who served health minister, is expected to take over Suga’s post. Abe’s younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, who has close ties with Taiwan, is reportedly being tapped as defense minister, replacing Taro Kono who is expected be shifted to administrative reforms minister.
Hashimoto and Yoko Kamikawa are the only Cabinet ministers who are women. Kamikawa in her last stint as justice minister in 2018 ordered the executions of 13 Aum Shinrikyo cultists for the subway gas attacks in 1995.
Compared to his political prowess at home, Suga has hardly traveled overseas and his diplomatic skills are unknown, though he is largely expected to pursue Abe’s priorities.
The new prime minister will inherit a range of challenges, including relations with China, which continues its assertive actions in the contested East China Sea, and what to do with the Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed to next summer due to the coronavirus. And he will have to establish a good relationship with whomever wins the U.S. presidential race.