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Japan after Abe

Suga elected prime minister, opening new chapter for Japan

Abe's right-hand man sets out to chart his own course

Japan's newly elected Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stands in the lower house of parliament in Tokyo on Sept. 16.

TOKYO -- Yoshihide Suga was elected Japan's prime minister in a parliamentary vote on Wednesday, marking a new chapter in the nation's politics after a record seven years and eight months under Shinzo Abe.

Suga, 71, will confront the immediate challenges of keeping COVID-19 under control, jump-starting the economy and paving the way for Tokyo to host the delayed Olympics next year. His selection after years as Abe's right-hand man is seen as a move to ensure a smooth transition of power and avoid a policy vacuum in the middle of the pandemic crisis.

But the new prime minister appears intent on being more than a caretaker.

Suga has vowed to accelerate a structural overhaul of the economy -- a job Abe left unfinished. "I will push ahead with deregulation and put an end to ministry sectionalism, vested interests and the practice of blindly following past precedents," he has said.

Abe may be tough act to follow, however. He led the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to six consecutive national election victories and stopped what had been a "revolving door" to the prime minister's office, with one leader quickly replacing another. The merits of his Abenomics economic reforms are hotly debated, but few would deny that he raised Japan's international profile.

Suga orchestrated some of Abe's key policies but has little diplomatic experience and lacks his predecessor's strong support base within the LDP. Unlike most politicians who reach the top, he does not belong to any of the ruling party's factions.

Nevertheless, Suga cruised to victory in the LDP's presidential election on Monday and received a majority of the votes in the lower house of parliament on Wednesday, elevating him to prime minister. Abe, who abruptly announced his resignation on Aug. 28 due to chronic health issues, formally stepped down Wednesday morning.

The new cabinet, which Suga is to officially unveil soon after the less-powerful upper chamber votes on his appointment, is expected to reflect the dual goals of maintaining continuity and sparking new initiatives -- though critics have already pointed out that the lineup includes few women or younger members.

Key players like Finance Minister Taro Aso, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama and Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda are set to take up the same posts. Meanwhile, Taro Kono, who has a reputation as a reformist and most recently served as Abe's defense minister, could have an opportunity to shake things up as minister in charge of administrative reform. Takuya Hirai, a former minister for information technology policy under Abe, will become digital minister.

Suga has said he will create a new government agency to coordinate digital policy, tasking it with upgrading the nation's high-tech capabilities.

Looming over everything is the prospect of a general election. Lower house members are entering the final year of their four-year terms next month. With the LDP riding an upswing in public support, speculation is rampant that Suga will call for polls soon.

For now, the new prime minister has said he is focused on the public's pressing concerns about the pandemic and the economy -- not elections.

Once Suga unveils his cabinet roster, he is to visit the Imperial Palace for a formal appointment by Emperor Naruhito. His new ministers will follow to the palace in the evening.

Upon returning to the prime minister's office, Suga will hold a news conference, followed by a cabinet meeting.

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