By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's choice of a popular minister to handle the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine is largely a move to boost rapidly-sinking support rates, but may also aim to neutralize a strong rival for his job.
Suga's appointment of Taro Kono, Japan's administrative reform minister, to coordinate preparations for delivering the vaccine comes as his four-month-old government is hit by widespread criticism and plunging support rates over its handling of the virus as a vital election looms later this year.
With recent polls showing support around 34 percent compared to 74 percent after he took office, there are already mutterings in political circles about getting rid of Suga, seen a sharp backroom operator but a poor communicator, unable to effectively marshal citizens to fight the most lethal wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the country.
"I think it's a possibility that it's sort of Suga giving a poisoned chalice to Kono, because of course he's an obvious candidate for succession and Suga is very much aware that there's open discussion about his replacement already," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University.
The job of coordinating between ministries responsible for vaccination is likely to be tricky, but given the high-profile nature of the job and Kono's ambitions, refusing wasn't possible.
"This is a way Suga can tie Kono's political ambitions with his own .... He can ensure that Kono will be working for him for his own political advancement," Nakano said.
The outspoken Kono, who boasts a large social media following and has vowed to abolish inefficiencies such as personal seals and fax machines, was the peoples' first choice for prime minister in an opinion poll released this week.
"Kono's extremely popular and he's regarded as being quite effective, while Suga's government is losing support and he's trying to save things," said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University.
"Kono is good at communicating. People will listen to him."
Many in the LDP, the ruling party, remain wary of the overseas-educated Kono, 58 and a former foreign and defence minister known for his diplomatic experience - a weakness of Suga's.
Kono told Reuters in an interview last week the Tokyo Olympics may not go ahead this summer as Suga's government has pledged.
"We need to do the best we can to prepare for the Games at this moment, but it could go either way," Kono said, setting off a fury of damage control.
Kono on Tuesday was warier, saying only he'd do his utmost so as many citizens as possible could be inoculated as early as possible. Japan, which has yet to approve any vaccine, aims to start at the end of February.
Public opinion on the appointment was divided, with some on social media hailing the move but a majority more cynical.
"Suga is simply using Kono to boost his own support," wrote one Twitter user.
(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Yoshifumi Takemoto; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)