Japan elects 71-year-old as new Prime Minister

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Japan’s Parliament elected Yoshihide Suga as prime minister Wednesday, replacing long-serving leader Shinzo Abe with his right-hand man.

Keeping his usual straight face, Suga bowed deeply several times when the results were announced as his fellow ruling party lawmakers applauded in Parliament’s lower house, the more powerful of the two chambers where he has a seat. He was also confirmed in the upper house.

Suga, who was chief Cabinet secretary and the top government spokesman under Abe, selected a Cabinet that is a mix of fresh faces and current or former ministers. They hold their first meeting later Wednesday.

Suga has stressed his background as a farmer’s son and a self-made politician in promising to serve the interests of ordinary people and rural communities. He has said he will pursue Abe’s unfinished policies and that his priorities will be fighting the coronavirus and turning around an economy battered by the pandemic.

Abe said before the change was official that as a lawmaker, he will support Suga’s government and he thanked the people for their understanding and their strong support for Suga.

“I devoted my body and soul for the economic recovery and diplomacy to protect Japan’s national interest every single day since we returned to power,” Abe told reporters at the prime minister’s office before heading into his final Cabinet meeting. “During this time, I was able to tackle various challenges together with the people, and I’m proud of myself.”

In a brief farewell ceremony, Abe was presented with a bouquet as all Prime Minister’s Office staff and Suga lined up and applauded until he disappeared into his car. Abe, 65, said last month he was resigning because his treatment for ulcerative colitis would be ongoing and cause physical weakness.

Suga was a loyal supporter since Abe’s first stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007 and helped him return to the job in 2012. He gained early support from party heavyweights on expectations he would continue Abe’s line, and his election to lead the ruling party on Monday virtually assured he would be chosen prime minister by Parliament.

Suga, 71, praised Abe’s diplomacy and economic policies when asked what he would like to accomplish himself and says he will set up a new government agency to speed up Japan’s lagging digital transformation.

He said he will break down vested interests and rules that hamper reforms. In reshuffling key posts with the party, however, Suga evenly allocated top posts to key factions, a balancing act seen as returning the favor for their support in the leadership race.

Suga said he will appoint “reform-minded, hard-working people” to the new Cabinet. Fifteen of the 20 expected posts are new; 11 members in the last Abe administration are to be retained or shifted to different ministerial posts and had served one of reshuffled Abe Cabinets.

Finance Minister Taro Aso, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto, and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, the son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, were retained.

Suga picked Katsunobu Kato, a former health minister and finance official, to succeed him as chief Cabinet secretary. Abe’s younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, who has close ties with Taiwan, was appointed defense minister, replacing Taro Kono who was shifted to administrative reforms minister.

Hashimoto and Yoko Kamikawa are the only Cabinet ministers who are women. Kamikawa in her last stint as justice minister in 2018 ordered the executions of 13 Aum Shinrikyo cultists for the 1995 gas attacks of Tokyo subways.

While Kato, as top government spokesman, read out the lineup for the Suga Cabinet, the ministers arrived at the prime minister’s office ahead of the palace ceremony to be sworn-in by Emperor Naruhito. Suga will then hold a press conference later Wednesday and have his first Cabinet meeting.

Compared to his political prowess at home, Suga has hardly traveled overseas and his diplomatic skills are unknown, though he is largely expected to pursue Abe’s priorities.

The new prime minister will inherit a range of challenges, including relations with China, which continues its assertive actions in the contested East China Sea, and what to do with the Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed to next summer due to the coronavirus. And he will have to establish a good relationship with whomever wins the U.S. presidential race.