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Tokyo Olympics delay rekindles debate over Abe’s political future

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.

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.

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.

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.

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