Newly appointed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga with finance minister Taro Aso (right) and foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi (left) at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, September 16 2020. Picture: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/REUTERS
Newly appointed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga with finance minister Taro Aso (right) and foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi (left) at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, September 16 2020. Picture: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/REUTERS

Tokyo — Japan’s parliament on Wednesday formally elected ruling party stalwart Yoshihide Suga — the 71-year-old son of a strawberry farmer — to be the country’s first new prime minister in almost eight years.

In his inaugural news conference as premier, he pledged to follow the policies of his former boss, Shinzo Abe, and give top priority to controlling the coronavirus, which helped cause the country’s worst contraction on record in the second quarter of this year.

“Reviving the economy remains the top priority of the administration,” Suga said after a ceremony at the Imperial Palace where the emperor endorsed the new premier and his cabinet. “While continuing with ‘Abenomics’, I want to press ahead with more reforms.”

The Liberal Democratic Party’s majority in the powerful lower house secured Suga a landslide victory in Wednesday’s vote, enabling him to take over from Abe, who stepped down for health reasons. A taciturn northerner known for his work ethic and pragmatism, Suga took the helm with promises of keeping strong Japan’s sole military alliance with the US.

Suga has pledged continuity and named a cabinet that relies on LDP political veterans and retains several major players from Abe’s line-up. Finance minister Taro Aso, foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi and environment minister Shinjiro Koizumi — the 39-year-old son of a former premier — were among those staying on.

The parliament vote capped a flurry of back-room deal making after Abe’s surprise August 28 announcement that he was ending his record-long tenure as prime minister due to health concerns. Suga — Abe’s chief cabinet secretary and top spokesperson — quickly locked up support from faction bosses to sideline would-be challengers and secure leadership of the LDP in a party vote Monday.

While Suga’s appointment officially brings the Abe era to an end, the former prime minister’s political influence is expected to linger. Suga has pledged to keep in place his former boss’s flexible fiscal stance and ultra-easy monetary policy, known as “Abenomics”.

Any sign of a departure could send the yen surging and stocks sliding, triggering a re-evaluation of the outlook for the nation. The Topix index briefly fell when Abe announced his intent to resign, but quickly steadied itself, with market players seeing Suga as keeping Japan on its current course.

In contrast with Abe’s rarefied political pedigree, Suga hails from rural Akita prefecture in northern Japan and took a job in a cardboard box factory when he first moved to Tokyo. He worked his way through university, before starting his political career as a secretary to a politician.

He was first elected to parliament in 1996 and was given the nickname “Uncle Reiwa” when he unveiled the name of the new Reiwa imperial era in 2019 to a national television audience.

“He’s a reformer from the roots,” said Hiroyuki Kishi, a former bureaucrat turned professor at Keio University. Typical of someone who made his way up through the ranks, Suga is strong on individual issues, but has yet to unveil a vision for the nation, Kishi added.

Akita is one of the areas most affected by the economic malaise born of Japan’s shrinking and ageing population. Suga’s background contrasts starkly with those of the many Japanese politicians who inherit their constituencies from relatives.

In one break from Abe, Suga said he will put an end to a government cherry blossom party after questions were raised over whether his former boss may have rewarded supporters with invitations to a publicly funded event. “If something is objectively wrong, it must be fixed,” Suga said.

The role of chief cabinet secretary — which Suga held for a record term — will be given to Katsunobu Kato. The former finance ministry bureaucrat most recently served as health minister.

Abe’s younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, known for support for Taiwan, will become defence minister. Meanwhile, defence minister Taro Kono will take over as minister for administrative reform.

Speculation about an early general election has simmered after a surge in support for the cabinet. Asked about the timing of the vote, Suga told reporters he wanted first to focus the cabinet’s energies on the pandemic and reviving the economy, while bearing in mind the time limits. The power to dissolve parliament for a general election lies with the prime minister, who isn’t obligated to call one until October of next year.

Suga has been outspoken on some specific issues, including the need for more competition among mobile phone providers to reduce costs for households. He has said Japan has too many regional financial institutions, and is a strong proponent of introducing casino resorts to bolster tourism.

While Suga has little direct experience in diplomacy, he has said that Japan’s alliance with the US will remain the cornerstone of its foreign policy and that he wants to maintain stable ties with China, his country’s biggest trading partner.

Bloomberg

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