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The three candidates vying for the top position in the Liberal Democratic Party entered the final stretch of the campaign Saturday, attempting to successfully pitch their policies and get the public on their side in the last major debate before the leadership contest Monday.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and LDP Policy Council Chairman Fumio Kishida took part in the debate organized by the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo.

The winner will almost certainly become the successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who decided late last month that he would step down due to a chronic illness, bringing his administration, the longest in the country's history, to an end.

Suga has a comfortable lead among eligible LDP lawmakers and representatives from each prefecture ahead of the election, and with the vote appearing to be a mere formality, focus has now shifted to who will be the runner-up as speculation rises over the makeup of Suga's first Cabinet.

Many of the themes discussed in Saturday’s debate overlapped with the candidates’ campaign remarks during the weeklong run-up to the election. Here are summaries of each candidate’s main takes on major issues:

Foreign policy and national security

All three candidates have emphasized the Japan-U.S. alliance as a cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy.

Suga, Abe's right-hand man and the top government spokesman throughout his current administration, says he would embrace his predecessor’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy" and continue to work toward the repatriation of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and '80s.

Ishiba, a defense hawk, says he wants to establish bilateral liaison offices with North Korea in Pyongyang and Tokyo to keep communication between the two countries active. He also reiterated his vision for creating a collective defense body in Asia similar to NATO.

On Saturday, Suga took a swing at Ishiba and criticized his proposed creation of a NATO-type pact, saying it would be perceived as an anti-China network and could create friction among member countries.

“What’s necessary is in what way are we going to create a safe system in a region,” Ishiba said shooting back at Suga. “That is what Japan, a country professing to conduct diplomacy on the basis of the United Nations, should strive for.”

Kishida, who served as foreign minister under the Abe administration for four years and eight months, has touted the importance of “soft power” diplomacy and of Japan taking a leading role in promoting free trade and the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals.

Coronavirus

Ishiba went toe-to-toe with Suga on Saturday over the special infectious disease legislation that serves as a basis for declaring a state of emergency. Noting that it lacked a legal framework to compel businesses to temporarily close, Ishiba argued that the law should be reinforced to give the government more authority, with businesses that close given compensation for doing so. Suga appeared dismissive of the argument, at least in the short term.

“Right now, we’re doing everything we can while bringing down infection risk under the existing law,” Suga said. “I think it’s important to keep doing that. … Of course, if necessary, we need to take a look at that again but as I’ve pointed out there are many issues that need to be considered, including on human rights.”

Economy

The three candidates diverge the most on the issue of how to improve the nation's economy.

Suga is pledging to continue with the prime minister's signature Abenomics policies and build upon them, while pushing for investment and reforms to achieve digitalization, one of his top policy interests. He advocates for the further promotion of the domestic Go To Travel campaign to invigorate a tourism industry battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Kishida also supports Abenomics but has pointed out that the middle class and rural residents did not benefit from it as much as the rich. He advocates for increased support in housing and education for those groups to reduce the nation's wealth gap. Additionally, he has said he is considering launching a fiscal stimulus package, if necessary.

Ishiba, an outspoken critic of the Abe administration, is calling for the development of “post-Abenomics” policies, keeping the existing macroeconomic plan in place but shifting emphasis toward a domestic-demand economy that would allow rural areas to benefit and prosper as much as cities.

Shrinking population

Suga is eager to make it so the national health insurance system covers the cost of infertility treatments, while Kishida has said he would work toward expanding subsidies to slash costs associated with childbirth in order to create an environment where it is easy to have children. Ishiba said during a debate Wednesday that Japan should learn from other countries’ examples in the areas of infertility treatment and epidural birth.

Snap election

Suga initially implied Tuesday afternoon that he might call a snap election as long as the coronavirus outbreak is under control, as did Kishida. But Suga walked back that remark later that evening, saying on a TV news program that “we aren’t in a situation to call for a snap election.” Ishiba has been dismissive of such a possibility.

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