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Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe donned a Super Mario outfit to appear at the closing ceremony of the Rio Games Photo: AFP/File

Olympic delay may not be all bad news for Abe

By Hiroshi HIYAMA

In 2016, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe broke with his staid public image to pop up in Rio dressed as Super Mario for the official handover of the Olympic Games to Tokyo.

The stunt reflected his commitment to an event that was supposed to be the crowning glory of his tenure. But analysts say the historic delay of the Games over the coronavirus may not be all bad news for Abe.

If the country's longest-serving prime minister can see off the twin threats of a larger-scale outbreak of the virus in Japan and a major economic crisis caused by the pandemic, he could even end up extending his tenure, due to expire in September 2021, experts say.

Abe has bet heavily on Japan hosting the Games, casting them as a chance to showcase recovery after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster, and delaying them would once have been seen as an "unthinkable political defeat", said Tobias Harris, senior vice president at consultancy Teneo.

But the rapidly expanding coronavirus epidemic has changed the political calculus, making holding the Games a greater risk than putting it off for now, he said.

The delay "removes a significant source of uncertainty for the administration and could give a bump to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's approval ratings, since large majorities support delaying the games," Harris said.

Japan has so far been something of an outlier in the pandemic, recording around 1,300 cases and 45 deaths, far fewer than in many countries around the world.

If the outbreak can be contained, Abe may find himself with enough support to continue his tenure past September 2021, said Tetsuro Kato, professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

"It's possible that members of his Liberal Democratic Party argue for a further extension of his term," Kato said.

Abe's government enjoys stable public support, hovering around 50 percent in approval rating polls, and the prime minister has benefitted from a dearth of viable alternatives both within his ruling party and the fragmented opposition.

A series of corruption scandals, the stumbling economy and unpopular legislation have at no time seriously threatened his government.

"In this case, the pandemic could even shift the public's attention" away from his administration's shortcomings, Kato said.

Perhaps more problematic for Abe is the expected economic downturn from the global pandemic. Analysts say the postponement of the Olympics is unlikely to result in a major lasting economic hit, with benefits simply delayed rather than lost altogether.

But the country's economy was already struggling before the pandemic began, with the prime minister's signature "Abenomics" strategy failing to boost sluggish growth.

Tourism had come under pressure from a spat with South Korea, and domestic consumption has been hit by a sales tax hike imposed last year despite fears it could send the country into a recession.

The government has unveiled two emergency economic packages already and is expected to offer fresh stimulus in the coming weeks.

The economy, rather than the delay of the Olympics, is now the main pressure point on Abe, said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus.

"I think that when we look at the post-mortem of COVID-19, the Olympics will be a minor footnote," he said.

Analysts said the other potential threat for Abe is that Japan's currently small-scale outbreak gradually expands, with the government already facing some criticism over its relatively hands-off approach to the pandemic.

Japan has not yet imposed the sort of lockdowns seen elsewhere in the world, and moved much slower than many other countries to impose travel restrictions on visitors.

Officials argue they have carefully tracked the outbreak, and that measures including school closures have helped contain the virus so far.

But Tokyo's governor warned this week that cases were increasing in the capital, urging people to avoid unnecessary outings this weekend.

"As opinion polls show, he (Abe) has strength left in him. But this will all change once a severe pandemic hits Japan," Kato said.

If Abe can ride out the pandemic and economic downturn though, even a delayed Olympics could be the sort of glittering final act he hoped for, said Harris. "A postponed games could not only be just as significant economically but could also be an important symbolic victory for the prime minister, since convening the games would be a milestone for global recovery from the pandemic."

© 2020 AFP

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

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This guy is going to be PM for another 10 years, if he had his own way.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Another article fawning over him?

4 ( +4 / -0 )

If the outbreak can be contained, Abe may find himself with enough support to continue his tenure past September 2021

An awfully big assumption given the news of the past couple of days.

If Japan gets hit bad by this because of the government ‘s apparent policy of throttling testing to create the appearance of normalcy for Abe’s Olympic pet project, then he needs to go.

Actually even if that doesn’t happen he needs to go, but anyway.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

This guy is going to be PM for another 10 years, if he had his own way.

If he keeps up the good work, why not?

-11 ( +0 / -11 )

Seriously who the **** cares if it is good for him or not!!!! Can one be anymore self centered? Everyone is more worried about not dying for this Wuhun Virus. Yes I said it.......The WUHUN VIRUS

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Need to change the PM. Enough of Abe. Can the opposition parties find an electable candidate and unite behind him/her?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

The Prime Minister has been caught out in one of the biggest lies of his ineffectual career.

How can he be trusted to tell the truth?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

CaliboyToday  02:55 pm JST

"This guy is going to be PM for another 10 years, if he had his own way."

If he keeps up the good work, why not?

What good work would that be? Abe seems to have quite a knack for survival, but it's been of little benefit to anyone.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

the problem with japan's 'democracy' is that not enough people give enough of a toss to vote the guy out if they don't like him/his policies. 'ma iiya' 'shaanai'

at least in the likes of aus and US, unpopular parties are usually* voted out at the next election (fingers crossed trump will too)...

*though not always

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

unpopular parties are usually* voted out at the next election

Boy does this comment speak a thousand words. A nice example of the TeeVee smartphone times. Popularity is for high school kids, leftists and their MSM talking heads, not effective or ineffective leaders. I can’t predict if Trump will survive this, but I can say that Biden is the worst choice and boosts Trumps chances. As I’ve always said, the Dems seem to LOVE shooting themselves in the foot.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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