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Japan’s top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, moved a step closer to becoming the next premier after the ruling party decided on Tuesday on a slimmed-down leadership vote that favours the long-time lieutenant of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Suga has also won the backing of the largest faction of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), media reported, making him a strong front-runner to replace Abe, who abruptly announced on Friday he was stepping down for health reasons.

Suga has not publicly announced his candidacy for leader of the LDP but has indicated privately that he intends to run, a source told Reuters.

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Media reported he would formally announce his intention to run on Wednesday.

The party’s leader will almost certainly become prime minister because of its majority in the lower house of parliament.

Suga, 71, is widely expected to stay the policy course set out by Abe, including the “Abenomics” strategy aimed at reviving the economy and keeping it afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A self-made politician, Suga was chosen by Abe in 2012 for the pivotal role of chief cabinet secretary, acting as top government spokesman, co-ordinating policies and riding herd on bureaucrats.

Suga’s most likely rivals for the top spot will be former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba and ex-foreign minister Fumio Kishida.

The LDP general council’s decision to keep rank-and-file party members out of the leadership vote gives Suga, with his powerful backers, a leg-up in the race. Ishiba, who is more popular with voters, as well as hundreds of other party members had opposed the format.

“I think that both for democracy and for the party, this is something that should not be,” Ishiba said on TV Asahi.

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AVOID POLITICAL VACUUM

LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, whose faction is backing Suga, said a simplified vote, by party MPs from both chambers of parliament and heads of local chapters, would be taken in the interest of speed.

“We must elect a new leader as soon as possible to avoid creating a political vacuum,” Nikai told reporters.

LDP General Council chief Shunichi Suzuki said the vote was unanimous, with some worrying that a prolonged process would place a burden on Abe’s health.

“If we hold a full-spec election, it would take two months to complete,” he told reporters, adding that policy-making on budget and coronavirus measures would also suffer.

On Monday, younger LDP legislators had met with Nikai to present a demand from more than 140 MPs and about 400 local party lawmakers for a full-scale vote. Several local chapters including Osaka had also demanded the same.

The LDP is expected to hold its leadership vote on Sept. 14, with an official announcement due on Wednesday.

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Financial markets also favour and appear to have factored in a win by Suga.

“He is considered to be a very effective policy leader within the party and bureaucracy ... and was key to Abe’s successful tenure,” said John Vail, chief global strategist at Nikko Asset Management.

“Suga’s experience with the virus situation, including his appropriate pushback on complete shutdowns, is key, as this is Japan’s greatest concern right now,” he added.

Other possible contenders are Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defence Minister Taro Kono, who both said on Tuesday they had not yet decided whether to run, while former cabinet minister Seiko Noda said she would not run.ikai is also supporting Suga.

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