TOKYO - Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga will join the race to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, ruling party lawmakers said Sunday, as they are seeking continuity in dealing with major issues amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Suga, who has been top government spokesman since Abe's return to power in late 2012, told Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai of his intention to run in the party leadership election, possibly to be held Sept. 14, according to the lawmakers.
Japan is planning to hold an extraordinary parliamentary session on Sept. 17 to pick the country's new prime minister, an LDP source with knowledge of the situation said.
Suga may publicly announce his intention to run in the election on Tuesday, while the source said the party is making final arrangements to kick off the race for the top job on Sept. 8.
On Friday, Abe, Japan's longest-serving premier, said he will step down after seven years and eight months in office, citing the worsening of his chronic intestinal illness.
Fumio Kishida, LDP policy chief and a former foreign minister, and Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister, have also indicated their desire to run to replace Abe as leader of the ruling party and prime minister.
Suga told Nikai on Saturday night that he "wants to make a formal announcement after the date for the election is fixed," according to the lawmakers. The LDP is set to convene a meeting to decide on the schedule on Tuesday.
Nikai, who has been delegated by Abe to make decisions on the leadership race as the party's No. 2, encouraged Suga to take part in the election, one of the lawmakers said.
"There is a growing atmosphere" to back Suga in Nikai's intraparty faction, Takeo Kawamura, a former chief Cabinet secretary, told reporters after attending its meeting on Sunday.
Suga does not belong to any faction in the LDP but Abe and Nikai rate him highly as a potential successor and he is also likely to receive support across factional lines, sources close to the matter said. Kishida, meanwhile, leads a faction with 47 lawmakers.
Suga, who has become a powerful figure as one of the premier's closest aides, had long ruled out the prospect of succeeding Abe, saying he had "never thought about it."
But he has made more TV and other media appearances since July and was considered a potential contender.
He gained public attention when he revealed the new imperial name Reiwa ahead of its May 1 start last year at a press conference. He has since been dubbed "Uncle Reiwa."
Suga, along with Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and LDP tax policy chief Akira Amari, had been a firm supporter to realize Abe's second stint in office following his abrupt and criticized resignation in September 2007 due to health concerns.
Ishiba welcomed Suga's intention to run for the top post, saying to reporters, "He is the central pillar of the (current) administration and a person I trust after working together to regain power" from the then Democratic Party of Japan in 2012.
Ishiba said he will make an official decision on the leadership race after the LDP decides on the format of the election.
Nikai is looking at a short election that excludes votes from rank-and-file members to choose a successor quickly in order to deal with the pandemic, according to the lawmakers.
"In promoting strong politics, it will be a handicap if I do not have the legitimacy of having been chosen by rank-and-file members," Ishiba said.
A Kyodo News survey released Sunday found Ishiba is the most popular choice to be Japan's next prime minister, gaining 34.3 percent of support and far outpacing other potential candidates.
Ishiba, who has been a rare critic of Abe's administration, is followed by Suga with 14.3 percent and Defense Minister Taro Kono with 13.6 percent, according to the nationwide telephone poll.
In a conventional election, as in the previous leadership race in 2018, whoever gains the majority of the 788 votes up for grabs wins. Parliamentarians and rank-and-file members hold 394 each.
But in times of emergency, such as if the LDP chief quits in the middle of a term, a scaled-down version of the election can be held, with 394 votes from Diet members and 141 from three delegates from each of the 47 prefectural chapters.
A simplified election is likely to deal a blow to Ishiba, as he is known to be more popular among rank-and-file members than among Diet members, as seen in recent public polls that show him topping Kishida and Suga in a question about who is most fit to run the country.
Ishiba, a leader of one of the smaller factions within the LDP with 19 lawmakers, needs to win over other lawmakers if he hopes to have a chance.