Suga received 377 votes in the leadership contest, beating Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister who scored 89, and Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister and critic of Abe who obtained 68 votes.
Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, surprised the country last month by announcing his retirement due to ill health.
“I think I have the mission to carry forward what has been done by Prime Minister Abe and his leadership,” Suga told the party after the result was announced.
Suga will be confirmed as Japan’s new leader by parliament on Wednesday, with his party commanding a majority in Japan’s lower house, and, with its coalition partner Komeito, in the upper house.
Suga was intimately associated with the Abe era, and he highlighted its achievements during televised debates to emphasize that he would deliver more of the same. On foreign policy, that means keeping the alliance with the United States as the centerpiece, forging closer links with democracies in the Asia-Pacific region but also maintaining reasonably cordial ties with China.
Domestically, Suga will emphasize economic revival over rigid infection control in the battle against the novel coronavirus, pledging to “tackle the economy with full force so that we can regain our ordinary life as soon as possible.” Getting that balance right will be his first major challenge, experts said.
Suga has also courted controversy by suggesting another rise in the consumption tax could be needed; previous increases under Abe twice caused the economy to contract.
But while Suga is likely to follow Abe’s line, he comes from a very different background.
Abe hails from a wealthy family that has played a dominant role in politics for many decades.
Suga, the son of a strawberry farmer and a teacher, worked in a factory after high school before paying his own way through college and then entering politics. He will be the first prime minister in 20 years who is not a hereditary politician, the Mainichi newspaper reported.
He has a reputation as a relentlessly hard worker who starts and ends the day with 100 sit-ups, according to local media, and holds meetings over breakfast, lunch and often two dinner meetings. Suga was the architect of Abe’s remarkable consolidation of power within the prime minister’s office, bringing a faction-ridden party and powerful bureaucracy into line and bringing the media to heel with carrots and sticks. Japan’s global ranking for press freedom slid during Abe’s tenure.
Takashi Ryuzaki, a political analyst and professor at Ryutsu Keizai University, said he expected Suga’s administration to be “extremely practical” but lacking a clear vision. Suga’s coldness started to emerge during the debates, he said, adding that this could become a handicap.
“The question is how that political style of his will be seen by the public,” he said. “A strong leader is typically also warmhearted and has a sense of humor.” But Suga has so far shown neither quality, he said.
Suga’s election was facilitated with the sort of backroom deal typical of Japanese elite politics: The support of Abe and 81-year-old party luminary Toshihiro Nikai were crucial in securing his rise to the top job.
Nikai, the LDP’s secretary general and the leader of a large faction in the party, eschewed normal voting procedures for the leadership race — denying rank-and-file party members the right to vote directly — ostensibly in the interests of simplicity and speed, but more likely to control the process and exclude the popular Ishiba, whose frequent criticism of Abe angered party leadership.
Instead, only parliamentarians and prefectural party offices were given the right to vote.
The party’s other main factions swung into line behind Abe and Nikai’s choice, and fawning news coverage added the finishing touches by giving Suga’s image a makeover: A man seen as an efficient political operator, with a dour image, was reimagined as a humble, self-made politician and a hard-working, teetotaling “uncle.”
Party members and public opinion then moved behind Suga.
Japan’s next prime minister may have also benefited from a sudden reevaluation of the Abe era: The outgoing premier saw his popularity plummet amid lackluster leadership during the battle against the coronavirus, but his ratings soared after he announced that he was stepping down.
Suga may surf that wave of popularity to hold a snap general election.
Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.