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For Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, Olympic delay may be no sweat

By Christopher Owuor
Friday, March 27th, 2020
In this file photo taken on July 24, 2019 International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach (R) walks with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) as they leave the stage during a ceremony marking one year before the start of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Photo/PHOTO/FILE

Tokyo, Thursday

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 premier 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.

- Economic pressure -

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.

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