Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announces his candidacy for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership in Tokyo, Japan, on Sept 2, 2020. (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)
TOKYO - Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declared on Wednesday he will run for the leadership of the ruling party, a race he is heavily favored to win, which would likely ensure the veteran politician will become the next prime minister.
Suga, a longtime aide to outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said he was entering the race to avoid a political vacuum during the pandemic. Should he win, Suga is widely expected to continue Abe's policies of fiscal and monetary stimulus.
Suga's main competitors for the top job are former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba and ex-foreign minister Fumio Kishida, but Suga's position looks strong
"I decided to run in the LDP leadership race after some deep thought on what I can do as a politician and a member of Abe's administration," Suga said at a briefing.
"In this time of national crisis, we cannot permit a political vacuum."
Suga said he would "maintain and push forward" the "Abenomics" stimulus policies pursued by Abe and work to help struggling regions if he were to become the next premier.
He also said he would maintain the kind of relationship the government has had with the Bank of Japan under Abe's administration.
He voiced his readiness to have the central bank take additional monetary easing steps to protect jobs. He also said there were "too many regional banks" in Japan, suggesting that he would prod them to consolidate if he were to be elected.
"We'll look at developments and if it's necessary to protect jobs, I'd like to promote further monetary policy (steps) because the economy is at a critical juncture," Suga said.
The party's leader will almost certainly become premier because of its majority in the lower house of parliament.
Abe announced his decision to resign last week, citing poor health.
Suga's main competitors for the top job are former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba and ex-foreign minister Fumio Kishida, but Suga's position looks strong.
So far, Suga has secured the backing of five of the LDP's seven factions, public broadcaster NHK and others reported.
The party decided on Tuesday to hold a slimmed-down election with just MPs and three votes from each of the 47 prefectures - an advantage for Suga.
The election will be on Sept 14, the party decided on Wednesday.
Many party chapters will poll rank-and-file members to decide how to allocate their three votes, but experts say this is unlikely to change the momentum growing for Suga if the members of the five factions back him.
Financial markets also favor Suga, assuming he would continue with the "Abenomics" strategy aimed at reviving the economy.
The veteran politician has repeatedly talked about the need to quickly bring back tourism to help revitalize Japan's regional economies, which were hobbled even before the pandemic by aging, shrinking populations.
The LDP decided on Wednesday that the election for party leadership will be held on Sept 14
But Ishiba is by far the most popular among the public and has been on a media blitz, appearing on several television programs over the past few days.
"During Abenomics, stocks rose, the yen was weak and wrought unprecedented profits to companies - that's something to be grateful for," Ishiba said on Fuji TV on Wednesday when asked how he would improve the lives of low-income workers and the unemployed.
"But what do we do with the dark side of that? That's the most important question in the post-Abe era," he said.
Apart from inheriting an economy in the throes of its worst downturn since World War II, Abe's successor will have to try to ensure that next year's Olympics - already delayed for a year by the novel coronavirus - go ahead as planned.
In recent months, Abe had seen his support fall to one of the lowest levels since taking power in December 2012 because of growing discontent among voters with his handling of the coronavirus and scandals among LDP members.
"There are various criticisms of the Abe administration, and we must work on each issue, listening to the voices of the people earnestly so as not to lose public trust," Suga said at one of his twice-daily news conferences as top government spokesman.
Kishida, meanwhile, said in an interview with Reuters that Japan would need to keep taking bold fiscal steps for the next few years to combat the pandemic-related economic damage, but that it must not fall behind when other countries start to normalise monetary and fiscal policies.
On Japan's ties with the United States, its key security ally, he said that frank talks were needed over Japan's share of its defense burden.
"We should not lose trust over who pays for what," he said.
HONG KONG NEWS