TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and two other candidates started their campaigns this week to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and as premier.
Abe announced last month he was resigning because of poor health, ending his tenure as Japan's longest-serving prime minister.
A leadership election is set for Sept. 14. The winner is virtually assured of becoming prime minister because of the LDP's parliamentary majority.
Here is where Suga, a clear favourite, stands on some key policies. Former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba and ex-foreign minister Fumio Kishida are also running.
A longtime lieutenant of Abe, Suga aims to continue the incumbent's hyper-easy monetary policy, stepped-up government spending and structural reforms, dubbed "Abenomics".
During a debate with the other candidates on Wednesday, Suga said he would maintain Abe's policy prioritising economic growth over efforts to fix the country's tattered finances.
"We must first revive the economy, because only then can we push through fiscal reform," he said.
Suga last week voiced his readiness to have the central bank take additional easing steps to protect jobs.
Suga opposes lowering the 10% sales tax rate, which he sees as indispensable to social security reforms. Some lawmakers have proposed cutting the tax to reduce the burden of the coronavirus pandemic on households.
In an interview with the Nikkei business daily on Saturday, Suga said he would consider compiling another economic stimulus package by the end of the year to "put the pandemic to an end and shift the economy to a new stage."
A son of a farmer from northern Japan, Suga counts the revitalisation of the regional economy as one of his key priorities.
As a strong proponent of reforms, Suga favours greater consolidation of regional banks and has also reiterated his intention to ask mobile phone carriers to lower fees, which he has advocated during Abe's tenure.
He aims to form an agency to promote the government's digital strategies under one roof and said in a recent newspaper interview that he will look into a possible overhaul of the health ministry.
"On becoming the LDP president, I would break down the vertically segmented administrative system, get rid of vested interests ... and do my best to push ahead with regulatory reforms," Suga said on Tuesday.
He urges companies to set hiring targets to help women's advancement in society, and proposes insurance coverage for fertility treatments.
Suga regards Japan's alliance with the United States as the mainstay of Tokyo's diplomacy and security, and seeks stable ties with neighbouring countries including China.
Suga reiterated on Wednesday that he is willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with no preconditions to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago.
He is for revising the U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution, a much cherished goal of Abe that ultimately eluded the outgoing prime minister.
Asked about his position on Japan possibly acquiring the capability to strike enemy targets, he said on Tuesday he would first observe ruling party debate, without specifying where he stands on the issue.
CORONAVIRUS AND BEYOND
Suga aims to boost coronavirus testing capacity and secure enough vaccine for Japan's entire population by the middle of next year.
He is a strong promoter of tourism as a way to drive local economies and signalled in a recent interview with Reuters the importance of re-opening the economy and also ensuring that the pandemic is contained.
In the interview he also stressed that Japan would do "whatever it takes" to ensure it could host the Olympics next year. The event was originally planned for this summer but postponed for a year due to the pandemic.
He has said preventing the spread of the coronavirus will take priority in any decision on holding a snap election.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka. Editing by Gerry Doyle)