Suga wins party vote, all but assuring election as Japan PM

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Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga acknowledges as he is elected as new head of Japan's ruling party at the Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) leadership election Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, in Tokyo. The ruling LDP chooses its new leader in an internal vote to pick a successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who announced his intention to resign last month due to illness. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, Pool)

TOKYO – Yoshihide Suga was elected as the new head of Japan’s ruling party on Monday, all but assuring that he will become the country's new prime minister when a parliamentary election is held later in the week.

Despite his low-key image, Suga, 71, has been an important figure in outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration, serving as the government's top spokesperson in his role as chief Cabinet secretary. Abe announced last month that he would resign due to health problems.

Suga's victory in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party vote virtually guarantees his election in a parliamentary vote Wednesday because of the majority held by the LDP's ruling coalition.

Suga, the son of a strawberry grower in northern Japan's Akita prefecture, said he had come a long way. “I will devote all of myself to work for the nation and the people," he said in his victory speech.

He has said that his top priorities will be fighting the coronavirus and turning around a Japanese economy battered by the pandemic. He gained the support of party heavyweights and their wing members early in the campaign on expectations that he would continue Abe’s policies.

Suga received 377 votes in Monday's vote to pick a successor to Abe. Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, one of the other two contenders, received 89 votes, while former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba got 68.

“Now I'm handing the baton to new LDP President Suga," Abe said after the vote. “We can count on him.”

Suga has been a loyal supporter of Abe since Abe's first stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007. Abe's tenure ended abruptly because of chronic illness, and Suga helped him return as prime minister in 2012.