Japan's Suga wins party leadership race, headed for premiership

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TOKYO (Sept 14): Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a loyal aide of outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, won a landslide victory in a ruling party leadership election today, paving the way for him to replace Abe this week in the nation's top job.

Suga, 71, who has said he would pursue Abe's key economic and foreign policies, won 377 votes out of 534 cast, and 535 possible votes, in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) election by the party's members of parliament and representatives of its 47 local chapters.

Rival Shigeru Ishiba, a former defence minister, won 68 votes while ex-foreign minister Fumio Kishida got 89.

Suga is virtually certain to be elected prime minister in a parliamentary vote on Wednesday because of the LDP's majority in the lower house. He will serve out Abe's term as party leader through September 2021.

Abe, Japan's longest-serving premier, said last month he would quit because of ill health, ending a nearly eight-year term.

Suga has said he would continue Abe's signature "Abenomics" strategy of hyper-easy monetary policy, government spending, and reforms while juggling the problems of Covid-19 and a slumping economy, and confronting longer-term issues such as Japan's ageing population and low birth rate.

Japanese manufacturers remained pessimistic for a 14th straight month in September, a Reuters poll showed, underlining the huge challenge the next leader faces.

Suga, whose resume is thin on diplomatic experience, faces geopolitical challenges such as building ties with the winner of the Nov 3 US presidential election and balancing concern over China's maritime aggressiveness with bilateral economic interdependence.

Speculation is simmering that Suga will call a snap election for parliament's lower house as soon as next month to boost his chances of winning a full three-year term as LDP chief next year. A vote for the lower chamber must be held by late October 2021.

Suga, the son of a strawberry farmer from northern Japan who got his start in politics as a local assemblyman, has since 2012 held the key post of chief cabinet secretary, acting as Abe's top government spokesman, coordinating policies and keeping bureaucrats in line.

He has the image as more of a behind-the-scenes operator than a front-line leader but rose in opinion polls after he announced his candidacy to succeed Abe. He won support from most LDP factions, outpacing his rivals including Ishiba and Kishida.

Suga is scheduled to hold a news conference at 6pm (0900 GMT).