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Inside Japanese politics

Dimming of Olympic torch casts shadow on Abe's succession plan

Tokyo 2020 delay turns guaranteed legacy into logistical nightmare

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is adamant on hosting the Tokyo Olympics while still in office.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- With the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games postponed to summer 2021, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is being forced to reevaluate his political calendar -- including on how to bow out of his post.

"I requested that the IOC consider delaying the games for about a year so that athletes throughout the world can attend under the best conditions and spectators feel safe," Abe said following a phone call with International Olympic Committee Chairman Thomas Bach on Tuesday.

Bach "agreed 100%," Abe said.

The games, originally scheduled to begin in July, would have been cemented Abe's legacy as he prepared to wrap up what would be 10 years in office come September 2021. But the postponement, with all its economic and logistical implications, could upend succession plans for Japan's longest-serving prime minister.

"I absolutely do not want to cancel the games," Abe told those close to him ahead of a video conference with leaders of the Group of Seven industrial nations on March 16.

During the call, Abe stressed his plans to hold the Olympics in their "full form" -- with spectators, and without downsizing. "The Tokyo Games will be the proof that humanity can win against the new coronavirus," he said, framing the Olympics as not just as a problem for Japan.

U.S. President Donald Trump had suggested delaying the games by a year before the call. Abe told aides afterward that G-7 leaders still wanted Tokyo to host the Olympics, confident an outright cancellation was off the table. Trump and Abe spoke together by phone on Wednesday morning regarding the postponement. "It's a very wise and wonderful decision," Trump told Abe, according to the Japanese government.

But the exact timeline of the delay could still deeply affect Abe's policy plans, which were designed around the 2020 Games. For example, he raised the consumption tax rate to 10% in October 2019, hoping that he could minimize its blow as long as he kept the economy humming until the games began.

Abenomics and its economic benefits have been a bedrock for the current government. But the economy is now showing distress due to the pandemic. "We have no choice but to continue fiscal stimulus if the Olympics are postponed," a source close to Abe said, but the Japanese government, which is also trying to rebuild its finances, does not necessarily have the resources to do so. The longer the games are pushed back, the greater the uncertainties regarding Japan's economy.

Abe is now in his eighth consecutive year in office. What he does over the remaining year and a half dictates not only the rest of his term, but the endurance of his influence in his retirement years.

Abe hoped to use the Tokyo Olympics to retain clout within the party. Some members of government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party thought Abe could leverage the momentum from the games to call a snap election as early as this fall.

Without the games this summer, it is less obvious when Abe should call an election. The current term for lower-house lawmakers expires in October 2021, leaving Abe with few choices on timing.

If the games are postponed to summer 2021, Abe would step down as the LDP president three weeks after the Paralympics end. The games could provide the perfect end to his long career at the top. On the other hand, this would leave just two months for Abe to wrap up his term, the LDP to elect a new president, and for that new president to call an election.

Under Abe, the LDP has won six national elections in a row. There is no guarantee his successor can replicate that record. The LDP would be more likely to gravitate toward a new leader with higher public approval with an election around the corner, meaning former Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba could take the lead over Abe's preferred choices, including policy research chief Fumio Kishida. This is not what Abe wants.

The Olympics have been canceled five times in modern history, all due to war. The Zika outbreak nearly put the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro in jeopardy, but they proceeded as planned after the World Health Organization said they would not affect the spread of the virus.

There have been no postponements. The contract for the Tokyo Games do not include specific clauses on what happens in the case of a delay.

Abe was 10 when Tokyo last hosted the Olympics in 1964 through a bid placed under his grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. Hayato Ikeda, who was the prime minister during the actual games, announced his resignation the day after the closing ceremony.

"This time around, I was here when we made the bid and will still be here during the games," Abe has told those around him.

Abe sees Tokyo 2020 as one of his main political legacies. Unlike his other goals, such as resolving the territorial dispute with Russia, bringing home Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea, or even amending the constitution, the Olympics does not require a compromise with a counterpart. It is something he can check off as long as he stays in power, and Abe is still committed to making the games a success with his own hands.

Inside Japanese Politics is a column that focuses on the details and inner workings of Tokyo statecraft, policy and foreign relations.

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