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Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday identified electronic "vaccine passports" for domestic use and an expansion of PCR testing as important elements in resuming pre-pandemic life, in an effort to distinguish himself from Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ahead of the Liberal Democratic Party leadership contest.

At a news conference to unveil his vision for the coronavirus response, Suga’s challenger endorsed the expansion of free PCR testing sites that do not require a reservation and also testing at home. Using a combination of stronger measures to enhance medical resources and reduce foot traffic, he hopes to restore a sense of normalcy by the beginning of next year.

“What is necessary to resume regular social and economic activities are vaccines, electronic vaccine passports and sufficient testing systems,” Kishida said.

Kishida’s policy announcement comes as his competition with Suga is intensifying. The prime minister is expected on Monday to replace longtime Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who has grown increasingly unpopular with some lawmakers. Kishida argued in favor of imposing term limits on members of the party executive when he declared his candidacy last week, and Suga’s move is seen as an act of desperation intended to head off the challenge from the former foreign minister.

On Tuesday, Suga reportedly proposed dissolving the Lower House and calling a snap election this month, thereby postponing the LDP presidential election.

If Suga thought that was how he could bounce back from diminishing public and party approval, it was a miscalculation. On Wednesday, he was forced to quash the rumored plot, which had been interpreted as Suga's way of avoiding a face-off with challengers. Several LDP lawmakers, including Kishida, came out vocally against the proposal.

In an effort to fight back, Suga met with Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi at the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday. Suga has met with Koizumi for four consecutive days, spurring speculation that Koizumi, the 40-year-old son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, will be tapped for a position on the party executive.

Suga and Koizumi are particularly close, and their districts are both in Kanagawa Prefecture. The prime minister, who is passionate about achieving carbon neutrality and made it part of his administration’s policy agenda, kept Koizumi at the Environment Ministry, a position he took on in former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s last Cabinet reshuffle. Suga is believed to have advised Abe to appoint Koizumi to the Cabinet post, capitalizing on his popularity among the public.

Suga may be hoping that handing Koizumi an executive position would boost the party’s popularity ahead of the Lower House poll — or at the very least minimize electoral damage.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on Aug. 25. | POOL /VIA REUTERS
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on Aug. 25. | POOL /VIA REUTERS

The LDP leadership election will be held on Sept. 29. Suga could designate the election date beforehand with the support of the Cabinet if he decides not to dissolve the Lower House, but Koizumi has indicated that Suga will not do that until after the party's presidential election.

“The prime minister thinks whoever wins the party presidential election should decide the date of the Lower House election,” Koizumi said after Thursday's meeting with Suga.

Leadership style

Even though Kishida is eager to gain the upper hand over Suga by highlighting the coronavirus response, the public’s No. 1 concern, the majority of his policy proposals overlap with those already under consideration by the Suga administration.

Consequently, Kishida instead opted to highlight his leadership style over specific policies, taking as many questions as possible during a roughly 90-minute news conference to establish the image that he will respond to the public’s concerns with clear messages and not shy away from criticism — perceived weak points for the sitting prime minister.

“I’ll scrupulously explain the government’s policies, their necessity and the decision-making process leading up to them to solicit cooperation and understanding,” Kishida said. “I’ll also act proactively by always keeping in mind the worst-case scenario as part of my crisis management, instead of thinking ‘things will probably get better.’”

Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi meets U.S. climate envoy John Kerry in Tokyo on Tuesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi meets U.S. climate envoy John Kerry in Tokyo on Tuesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Holding a small blue suggestion box as a prop, he said he welcomes feedback on his policies from the public using a hashtag on Twitter, where he will periodically address the points raised as well as on YouTube. Such an effort underscores his eagerness to engage the public, another weak area for Suga.

To deal with COVID-19, the former foreign minister called for stronger legal measures — enforced by both the central government and municipalities — to curb foot traffic and procure medical resources, but he was skeptical of introducing lockdowns.

To accommodate a flood of patients, Kishida pledged to strengthen the health care system by enabling the central government to set up field hospitals and requisition large-scale facilities.

He suggested establishing a government agency housed under the Cabinet Office that serves as a command center to deal with public health crises. The agency would be given powerful authority and operate under its own minister to make clear where responsibility lies.

As for economic measures, Kishida proposed a stimulus package worth billions of yen. It would provide financial assistance to businesses, matched with their scale regardless of their industry and the area where they operate, to cover their fixed expenses such as rent, with the support envisaged as lasting into the spring.

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