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The Nikkei View

Japan's Suga must unite the nation to beat COVID-19 crisis

Fading influence of factions may signal change in ruling LDP

Liberal Democratic Party chief Yoshihide Suga, center, poses with senior party officials at a meeting of the LDP's General Council in Tokyo on Sept. 15. (Photo by Arisa Moriyama)

Japan's longest-serving chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, was elected in parliament Wednesday as the 99th prime minister. It is the country's first leadership change since December 2012, or in about seven years and eight months.

This came after Suga won Monday's intraparty vote by a landslide to become the 26th leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He amassed 377 votes, or around 70% of the total, easily besting former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and ex-Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who received 89 and 68 votes, respectively.

Suga will serve out the rest of Shinzo Abe's term as LDP chief, until September 2021.

The LDP leadership race came after Abe announced he would resign as prime minister over a flare-up of a severe digestive illness. It was a battle for 535 votes, of which 394 were members of parliament and the rest were three votes for each of Japan's 47 prefectures.

Suga got the nod from an impressive 73% of members of parliament and snagged 63% of the prefectural vote.

The widespread support reflected the party's desire to carry Abe's torch. Suga was Abe's chief aide for seven years and eight months and was seen as the best person to succeed him.

There was a broad consensus that a drastic shift away from Abe would not be wise when the nation faces unprecedented health and economic crises from the COVID-19 outbreak.

Media polling suggests 70%-plus approval for Abe's performance. Suga's victory, therefore, is in line with the public's desire to stay the course.

Suga himself does not belong to any faction. In a party that has always chosen its leader through the making and breaking of factional alliances, a victory by such a candidate is unprecedented.

It has been 24 years since single-seat constituencies replaced multiseat constituencies in Japan. As expected, the change has sapped the influence of the factions -- whose rationale was to support different candidates in the same constituency.

Back in the age of factions, the LDP was a "big tent" party encompassing a wide range of ideologies and policies. As different factions rose to the helm, the pendulum would swing left and right, enabling the party to stay in power.

But not this time, and the ascent of the nonaligned Suga may signal change.

That said, the policy debate among the three candidates was hardly meaningless. Kishida's visions for tackling inequality and shifting from division to cooperation, and Ishiba's proposed "great reset" of Japan, offer alternative paths ahead.

While support for the two did not broaden in this election cycle, we hope for further debate in the LDP on these topics.

Politics need not focus on the small-bore issues right in front of us. This leadership race could ideally kick-start discussion of big ideas from a global and historical perspective.

For Suga, the first task was to assemble leadership teams in the LDP and the cabinet. It is important to unite the nation and pool strengths to take on the coronavirus without hurting the economy. Suga has promoted leadership stability by retaining eight ministers from the Abe cabinet. Five of his cabinet members are assuming portfolios for the first time.

Suga told a news conference Monday that he wants to appoint committed reformers who can get the job done. The eight ministers retained from the Abe cabinet include Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso; Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi; Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Koichi Hagiuda; and Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Kazuyoshi Akaba, who belongs to Komeito, the LDP's junior coalition partner.

Suga has expressed his intention to push ahead with regulatory reforms by fighting bureaucratic sectionalism among ministries, agencies and vested interests. He also wants to establish a "digital agency" to promote the digitization of the economy and society.

These are areas where the Abe government fell short, and Suga will be expected to make progress where his predecessor did not.

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