TOKYO – Japan’s Yoshihide Suga was voted prime
minister by parliament’s lower house on Wednesday, becoming the country’s first
new leader in nearly eight years, as he readied a “continuity
cabinet” expected to keep about half of predecessor Shinzo Abe’s line-up.
Suga, 71, Abe’s long-time right-hand man, has
pledged to pursue many of Abe’s programmes, including his signature
“Abenomics” economic strategy, and to forge ahead with structural reforms,
including deregulation and streamlining bureaucracy.
Abe, Japan’s longest-serving PM, resigned because
of ill health after nearly eight years in office. Suga served under him in the
pivotal post of chief cabinet secretary.
Suga won 314 votes out of 462 cast by parliament’s
lower house members. The chamber takes precedence in electing a premier over
the upper house, which was also expected to pick Suga because of a ruling bloc
Suga, who won a ruling Liberal Democratic Party
(LDP) leadership race by a landslide on Monday, faces a plethora of challenges,
including tackling Covid-19 while reviving a battered economy and dealing with
a rapidly aging society.
With little direct diplomatic experience, Suga must
also cope with an intensifying US-China confrontation, build ties with the
winner of the 3 November US presidential election, and try to keep Japan’s own
relations with Beijing on track.
‘Continuity with a capital C’
Domestic media said that roughly half of the new
cabinet would be people from the Abe cabinet. There will be only two women and
the average age, including Suga, is 60.
Among those expected to retain their jobs are key
players such as Finance Minister Taro Aso and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu
Motegi, along with Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto and Environment Minister
Shinjiro Koizumi, the youngest at 39.
“It’s a ‘Continuity with a capital C’
cabinet,” said Jesper Koll, senior adviser to asset manager WisdomTree
Abe’s younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, is likely to be
tapped for the defence portfolio, while outgoing Defence Minister Taro Kono
will take charge of administrative reform, a post he has held before.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, Abe’s point man on Covid-19
response, will remain economy minister, while Trade and Industry Minister
Hiroshi Kajiyama, the son of a politician whom Suga looked up to as his mentor,
will also retain his post, media reported.
Katsunobu Kato, outgoing health minister and a
close Suga ally, is expected to become chief cabinet secretary.
New spokesman, structural reform
“Suga will continue Abe’s economic policies
and there will be no short-term impact on markets,” said Kensuke Niihara,
chief investment officer of State Street Global Advisors Japan.
“In the longer term, because foreign
investors’ interest in Japanese stocks has been low, if he presses ahead with
structural reforms and deregulations, that is a theme investors like and would
be a positive surprise,” Niihara added.
Suga has criticised Japan’s top three mobile phone
carriers, NTT Docomo Inc, KDDI Corp and SoftBank Corp, saying they should
return more money to the public and face more competition.
He has also said Japan may eventually need to raise
its 10% sales tax to pay for social security, but not for the next decade.
Clues as to whether and how Suga will push ahead
with reforms could come from the line-up of government advisory panels such as
the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, Koll said.
Speculation has simmered that Suga might call a
snap election for parliament’s lower house to take advantage of any rise in
public support, although he has said handling the pandemic and reviving the
economy were his top priorities.
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