TOKYO -- As the Japanese capital prepares to host the 2020 Olympic Games, the city's political center is rife with speculation as to whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends to remain at the helm for the big stage.
Abe appeared at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics on Sunday dressed as Mario from the classic video game "Super Mario Bros.," a symbol of Japan's soft power. "It will be our turn to give the excitement to people at the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in four years," he told reporters afterwards. Many in Abe's Liberal Democratic Party took his enthusiasm as a sign that he wants to stay on until the next games.
But that will not happen unless the LDP agrees to change party rules to extend his term, a maneuver that requires a careful political calculation.
One of Japan's longest-reigning prime ministers in recent history was Junichiro Koizumi, who held the post for 1,980 days. The LDP won the 2005 lower house elections in a landslide on the promise of privatizing the postal system. Many at the time speculated whether Koizumi would stay on as LDP chief after his term ended the following year, but he vehemently denied the possibility. And true to his word, he stepped down in 2006.
No clear answers
As with Koizumi, those close to Abe have already begun discussing extending his term in office. The prime minister has not commented on the matter. When asked Sunday whether he wanted to still be prime minister in four years, Abe said he will work hard for the success of the Tokyo games regardless of the position he is in.
He has a reason to evade the question. If he says he will step down, he will lose influence as other LDP members focus on the succession race. If he says he wants to stay, he will face a backlash from those jockeying for the post.
But he appears to have begun laying the groundwork to extend his rein. He made Toshihiro Nikai, who supports lengthening the term limit, the LDP's secretary-general in a leadership reshuffle on Aug. 3. He also appointed Tamayo Marukawa, previously environment minister, as the minister in charge of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics to work alongside Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike on the games.
"These appointments reflect Abe's desire to take on the Olympics himself," an LDP official said.
Under the LDP's bylaws, Abe must step down as party chief at the end of his second three-year term in September 2018. He could be granted a one-time exception to remain in office until the 2020 Olympics, but many think the debate will center on allowing all future prime ministers to serve a third term for a total of nine years. After gauging the opinions of party members, Nikai will decide whether to pursue an extension as early as by the end of the year, and aims to change the LDP's bylaws at a party convention at the beginning of 2017.
A change to the rules does not necessarily guarantee Abe will still be prime minister for the Tokyo Olympics. Shigeru Ishiba, former minister for revitalizing Japan's local economies, declined Abe's offer for a cabinet post in the recent reshuffle. He plans to start canvassing Japan's provinces soon with an eye on the next race for LDP chief. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida also remains hesitant over extending the term limit. Such party heavyweights are eyeing the prime minister's chair for themselves, and could throw a wrench into Abe's plans.
Stock prices, cabinet approval ratings and other factors could also change in the four years until the Tokyo games. In an opinion poll by The Nikkei this month, 45% of respondents were opposed to a longer term limit, compared with 41% in favor.
Some LDP members say Abe should only be allowed a third term as prime minister if the ruling party scores a landslide victory in the next lower house elections, to be held by December 2018. Nikai wants to make a decision by year-end because he understands how quickly the tide turns in politics.
Some close to Nikai are even pushing to hold the election for LDP chief a year early in the fall of 2017 after changing the bylaws next year. The behind-the-scenes maneuvering for Japan's top political post has already begun.