Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga Photograph:( WION Web Team )
Yoshihide Suga, 71, has emerged as a strong contender to succeed Abe as the prime minister, an outcome that would extend the fiscal and monetary stimulus that defined Abe's nearly eight years in office.
Shinzo Abe, Japan's longest-serving premier, has stepped down due to the worsening of a chronic illness, setting the stage for a leadership election within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
There are would-be successors who have declared their intention to run. But one longtime lieutenant of Abe has been humble enough to announce he doesn't want the job.
Despite this, loyalist Yoshihide Suga, 71, has emerged as a strong contender to succeed Abe as the prime minister, an outcome that would extend the fiscal and monetary stimulus that defined Abe's nearly eight years in office.
In an interview with Reuters this week, Suga stressed the need to spur economic growth over tightening restrictions to contain the virus, pointing to the need to promote tourism.
"We need to consider what we can do to prevent the economy from falling off a cliff," Suga said at his parliamentary office, where a large photograph of him standing next to US President Donald Trump was on display.
A self-made politician, Suga was chosen by Abe in 2012 for the pivotal role of chief cabinet secretary, acting as top government spokesman, coordinating policies and riding herd on bureaucrats.
The winner of the LDP vote, which domestic media said could be held around September 15, is virtually ensured the premiership because of the party's majority in parliament. The victor will serve out Abe's remaining term as LDP chief, which ends in September 2021.
Talk of Suga as a contender bubbled up in April 2019 after he unveiled the new imperial era name, "Reiwa", for use on Japanese calendars after the enthronement of the new emperor.
Still, the veteran lawmaker has an image more as a behind-the-scenes operator than a frontline leader.
Other than him, former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, 63, a soft-spoken security hawk who aims to revive Japan's regional economies, is also expected to run. A long-time Abe critic, Ishiba is popular with the public but less so among party members of parliament.
Ex-foreign minister Fumio Kishida, 63, long seen as Abe's favoured heir, said on Friday he would run in the party poll, but the dovish lawmaker from Hiroshima has struggled to gain traction with voters.
Dark-horse potential candidates include Defence Minster Taro Kono, 56, who has an image as a maverick but has toed the line on key Abe policies, and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, 64, who has a reputation as a tough negotiator.
Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi is popular but at 39 seen by many as too young.
Usually, a leadership vote is held by LDP MPs along with grassroots party members.
In case of a sudden resignation, however, an extraordinary vote can be called with participants narrowed to MPs and representatives of the party's local chapters.
What format party executives pick to choose their next leader will have a big impact on the outcome. A decision is expected on Tuesday.
(with inputs from Reuters)