TOKYO: Japan's Yoshihide Suga was voted prime minister by parliament's lower house on Wednesday (Sep 16), 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 lineup.
Suga, 71, Abe's longtime 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 prime minister, 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 majority.
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 ageing society.
With little direct diplomatic experience, Suga must also cope with an intensifying US-China confrontation, build ties with the winner of the Nov 3 US presidential election and try to keep Japan's own relations with Beijing on track.
About half of the new cabinet are carryovers from Abe's administration. Only two are women and the average age, including Suga, is 60.
Among those retaining their jobs are key players such as Finance Minister Taro Aso, who also briefly served as prime minister.
In 2008, Aso was elected LDP leader and hence, prime minister, but the long-dominant party suffered a historic election defeat in 2009, languishing in the opposition for the next three years.
Another returning face is Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, 64, who previously served as economy minister, facing off with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in tough negotiations.
Motegi also served as trade minister under Abe when the latter returned to power in 2012, tackling talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact.
Also retaining his post is Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, the youngest at 39, who is also the son of charismatic former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and often mentioned as a future premier, although for now considered too young by many in the LDP.
He shares some of Abe's conservative views and has paid his respects at Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine for the war dead.
"It's a 'Continuity with a capital C' cabinet," said Jesper Koll, senior adviser to asset manager WisdomTree Investments.
Abe's younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, was handed the defence portfolio, while outgoing Defence Minister Taro Kono takes charge of administrative reform, a post he has held before.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, Abe's point man on COVID-19 response, remains economy minister, while Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama, the son of a politician to whom Suga looked up as his mentor, also retains his post.
ROUGH ROAD AHEAD?
Katsunobu Kato, outgoing health minister and a close Suga ally, takes on the challenging post of chief cabinet secretary. He announced the cabinet lineup.
Tomoya Masanao, head of investment firm PIMCO Japan, said Suga's goal of a more digitalised society could widen the gap between rich and poor and would require political capital.
"Abe's administration built political capital for itself with loose monetary and fiscal policies, a balanced and skilful diplomacy with the United States and China, and implementation of flexible domestic politic," he said. "The new administration, on the other hand, faces a rough road ahead."
In a move that resonates with voters, 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 per cent 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 lineup of government advisory panels such as the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, Koll said.
"The ambition of Mr Suga to speed up and reinvigorate the process (of reform) is absolutely clear, but the next layer of personnel will be interesting," he 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.