Race to succeed Shinzo Abe as Japanese PM comes into view


With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announcing his plans to step down due to health reasons, members of his ruling party are furiously manoeuvring ahead of an internal vote that will ultimately decide his successor.

Executives of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party met Tuesday and decided that the Sept. 14 vote for party leader — and with it almost assuredly prime minister — will be limited to lawmakers and not broader members of the party. Some younger lawmakers had called for the latter to be included in order to make the process more open and democratic.

Whoever is chosen will fill in for the rest of Abe’s term until September 2021, with a general election set to take place the following month.

The next prime minister will face a number of challenges, including the ongoing fight against COVID-19, managing the postponed Tokyo Olympics, setting Japan’s security policy in the face of an increasingly assertive China, and dealing with the results of the presidential election in the U.S., Japan’s key ally.

Here are the three candidates, including two who have announced their intention to run and a third also expected to do so:

Ishiba, a lawmaker with Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and former defence minister, speaks during a news conference about his participation in the race to become the LDP’s next leader on Tuesday in Tokyo. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

Shigeru Ishiba

A former defence minister seen as Abe’s archrival within the party, the 63-year-old Ishiba is the public’s favourite for the next prime minister in media surveys.

Ishiba’s vocal criticism of Abe, however, has hurt his popularity among ruling party lawmakers. Ishiba has criticized Abe’s rule as autocratic and raised concerns about growing poverty.

“A new leader is tasked with a responsibility to reach out to the people honestly, humbly and squarely and gain their understanding in carrying out policies,” Ishiba told reporters Tuesday as he announced he will compete.

A soft-spoken banker-turned-politician, Ishiba is known as a defence hawk and says Japan should have stronger military capability within the current constitutional limitations.

In addition to defence minister, Ishiba has also held top ministry posts in agriculture and local revitalization. He lost to Abe twice in party elections in 2012 and 2018.

Kishida, policy chief of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and former foreign minister, is shown at a news conference Tuesday after he announced his participation in the leadership contest. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

Fumio Kishida

Abe’s foreign minister from 2012-2017, the 63-year-old Kishida had once been considered the party’s preferred choice to become the next prime minister. His status has slipped, however, after he was seen as fumbling some of the party’s response to the coronavirus in his role as policy chief.

In formally announcing his candidacy Tuesday, Kishida said he would be a leader who listens to the voices of the people — something Abe has been criticized for not doing enough.

“I know a road to victory is tough.… But I will only do my utmost,” Kishida said.

A low-key lawmaker from Hiroshima with somewhat dovish stance on security issues, he has been less supportive of Abe’s longtime push to rewrite Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution. Kishida struck a 2015 settlement with South Korea on Korean victims of Japan’s wartime sexual abuse.

Kishida in 2017 helped arrange then-President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, a first for a serving American leader.

Suga speaks during a press conference at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo in 2019. Suga has yet to officially confirm his entry into the race. (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

Yoshihide Suga

Japan’s top government spokesperson and Abe’s longtime right-hand man, the 71-year-old Suga has emerged as the favourite among ruling party heavyweights. Suga has been pegged by the party secretary general as the best caretaker who can ensure the continuation of Abe’s policies.

The son of a farmer in the northern prefecture of Akita, Suga is a self-made politician, rare in Japan’s largely hereditary world of politics. As chief cabinet secretary, Suga is a policy co-ordinator and adviser to Abe. He is also the public face of Abe’s government, doing twice-daily televised media briefings.

He’s become known as “Uncle Reiwa” after he was tasked with unveiling the new imperial-era name for Emperor Naruhito last year. Suga has been a loyal supporter of Abe since his first stint as prime minister from 2006-2007 and helped his return to power in 2012.

Suga had previously denied that he would run, but on Tuesday simply told reporters he would not comment. Asked about key policies that the post-Abe government should tackle, Suga noted coronavirus measures as the biggest challenge.

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