In one 2020 scenario, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would have seen the Olympic flame lighting up a packed National Stadium in July, the nation's economy booming due to tourism and his own political standing receiving a significant boost.
But the novel coronavirus has rewritten the state of play. Instead, the nation's longest-serving prime minister's calculations about his political future have been jolted. He may opt to pass the torch to a new leader. Or, he could gamble on a return to the Prime Minister's Office by seeking to win a fourth term as head of the Liberal Democratic Party.
The postponement of the Olympic Games for about a year fans the flames of a different sort of race, this one in Nagatacho: Who will succeed Abe as prime minister? Speculation over when Abe might dissolve the Lower House for a snap election has resurfaced, and LDP heavyweights may soon begin to consider a possible post-Abe administration.
With the coronavirus pandemic raging around the world, Abe acquiesced Tuesday in announcing the rescheduling of the quadrennial sporting event out of concern for the safety of athletes and spectators.
For Abe, a delay within a year represents the best alternative following an outcry in recent weeks from frustrated athletes and others. Either cancellation or a deferment of more than two years would certainly be tough on athletes, spectators and the economy — but it would also spoil Abe’s political legacy.
Experts had said a cancellation would have ended Abe’s political career. Shunichi Suzuki, chairman of the LDP’s General Council, said in February that the Abe administration would shoulder political responsibility if the Olympics were canceled.
“The one-year postponement was the only choice Prime Minister Abe had to preserve political influence,” said Takashi Ryuzaki, a political science professor at Ryutsu Keizai University in Ibaraki Prefecture.
Abe needs the Olympics to cement his legacy, Ryuzaki said, noting that despite his more than seven-year stint in office, he does not have many tangible achievements to point to. Abe has been unsuccessful thus far in his bids to amend the Constitution, settle territorial disputes with Russia or resolve the issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens. All are among his long-held goals.
From the early days of his second stint, the Olympic Games have been at the forefront of Abe’s mind. The government spent roughly ¥1.06 trillion between fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2018 on projects linked to the games. The 2020 Olympics and Paralympics theme was sprinkled throughout his annual policy speech this year. Further back, Abe even appeared at the closing ceremony for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics wearing a Super Mario costume, as he looked ahead to Japan's turn as host.
While the International Olympic Committee has not set a specific date, Abe affirmed Tuesday that it would be difficult to host the Olympics this year. This means that he now has an opening to call a snap Lower House election essentially anytime he desires — provided the domestic COVID-19 outbreak eases.
Opposition parties are watching out for the possibility of a snap election. Major party leaders reportedly met Wednesday night to discuss campaign strategies.
Abe’s term as LDP leader will be up in September 2021, bringing his role as head of the government to an end as well. The party could change its rules to enable him to serve a fourth term, just as it did for his third, but it remains unclear whether the party would decide to take this step again.
Year after year since 2014, Abe's Cabinet ministers have been forced to resign over scandals or gaffes. Even ruling party members have expressed concerns over a series of cronyism allegations tied to Abe. Political analysts have pointed out that candidates backed by Abe in single-seat districts in last year’s Upper House election did not perform well, indicating that his ability to sway elections is weakening.
An NHK poll taken this month showed that Abe’s approval rating stood at 43 percent, with his disapproval rating at 41 percent. But the biggest factor pushing people to say they approved — 54 percent of those in that column — was the lack of a better alternative.
Ryuzaki said Abe’s once dominant influence within the LDP is waning because of his diminishing ability to win elections and criticism over his alleged favoritism, which could lead to a search for a new leader fill the power vacuum.
“For Mr. Abe, if he went ahead with a general election, there might be a possibility that some LDP members would try to drag him down from power. It’s going to be a perilous year for him,” Ryuzaki said. “He could win against the opposition parties on his economic measures but it’s tough to fend off criticism from within the party. That is remarkably different from other elections in the past.”
Abe himself said in January that he is not thinking about staying on “at all.” But LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said on Wednesday that “a vast majority of people are thinking that it’s important to let (Abe) continue.” Pundits have taken the comment as admonishment meant to suppress internal discontent over the prime minister.
If the prime minister wants to bet on another term, he will need to oversee a snap election before the current Lower House members’ terms expire in October next year — a month after Abe’s third term ends — to avoid becoming a lame duck.
One of the most likely dates floated is July 5, when the Tokyo gubernatorial election will be held. That date was set to minimize the impact on the Olympics, which would have started on July 24. The LDP will reportedly not put forth a rival candidate against Gov. Yuriko Koike in an effort to maintain amicable ties. She left the LDP and has been at odds with the party’s Tokyo chapter.
Since the Olympics won’t take place in July, Abe could seek cooperation from Koike, who is seen as likely to win her second term, in order to boost the party’s popularity.
The other two potential dates would be before an extraordinary Diet session begins this autumn or after the session ends in December. Abe, Ryuzaki pointed out, may want to dissolve the Diet before compiling any fiscal 2021 budget incorporating drastic economic measures — such as bringing down the consumption tax to 5 percent.
“Economic measures would be the only talking point if Mr. Abe was to dissolve the Diet,” Ryuzaki said. “He’ll of course do pork-barreling (to uplift the economy) but he needs a second round for sure, so he might propose a lower consumption tax.”
He may be tempted to take the step anticipating that the outbreak could severely hit the domestic economy, which was already facing headwinds after the consumption tax was raised to 10 percent last October. Earlier this month, some LDP lawmakers called for the government to temporarily lower the tax to zero percent.
By proposing a lower consumption tax before compiling the fiscal 2021 budget, Abe would have an underlying motive to parry criticism over the weak economy, Ryuzaki said.
But what if the party decided to opt for another candidate to succeed Abe? Two LDP heavyweights have been floated as potential successors: former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, a prominent critic of Abe, and Policy Research Council Chairperson Fumio Kishida.
In a Fuji TV poll taken last weekend, Ishiba earned support from 18.5 percent, following Abe with 18.8 percent. Kishida only managed support from 2.9 percent.
The main challenge for Abe going forward is whether he can counter Ishiba’s leverage, which could grow if he absorbs support from those who are dissatisfied with Abe. On the other hand, Ishiba needs to win the confidence of the party leadership, which has been sticking by Abe overall, by making a compelling case for why he is the best choice.
Kishida faces a balancing act in deciding how much distance he will keep between himself and Abe over the next year. Through the coronavirus crisis, Kishida, who is seen as Abe’s pick if he decides not to run for a fourth term, is seeking to have a stronger presence in the party, compiling and submitting the LDP’s economic proposals to the prime minister.
But Ryuzaki said Kishida’s ideal scenario — Abe clearing a path for him — was delayed because of the Olympic postponement. If Abe’s influence diminishes within the party, that could jeopardize Kishida’s political future too.