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Japan’s Suga stares down an Olympic challenge



OSAKA – Just two months before the Tokyo Olympics are due to begin, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito face a massive political problem.


Ten prefectures including Tokyo remain under a state of emergency due to COVID-19, with it set to expire for nine of them on May 31 — a deadline now likely to be extended well into June for some. On Monday, the U.S. advised its citizens not to travel to Japan because of the risk of infection. Polls show the majority of the public wants the games canceled, with medical experts warning that going ahead with the Olympics could lead to superspreader events in Japan and elsewhere during and afterward.


Despite the growing concerns, the International Olympic Committee and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga insist the Tokyo Olympics will take place as scheduled. But it’s a decision fraught with implications, and not only for public health.


Experts say the decision to cancel or go ahead with the games presents important political advantages and risks to the ruling parties, which will be weighed by the prime minister, the LDP and Komeito before any final word is issued on the matter by the government.


What that final decision might be is the subject of much speculation within and outside of Japan.


The Tokyo Olympics are slated to begin July 23, less than three weeks after the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections on July 4. The Tokyo Paralympic Games, which begin on Aug. 24, finish on Sept. 5.


Politically, the timing of all three is tricky. September is also when the LDP’s presidential election must be held, and just a month before a Lower House election has to take place.


If successful, the Tokyo Olympics could provide a lift to the fortunes of Suga and the ruling parties in a general election.


Kenneth Mori McElwain, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo, says that if the games are held, there is one specific way they might benefit Suga and the ruling coalition at election time.


“If Japanese athletes win a lot of gold medals, that will dominate the news cycle and people will be happy,” says McElwain. “Especially in rural Japan — where the LDP is strong — the joys of the Olympics will ultimately outweigh the concerns about COVID.”


The ideal scenario, he says, under the assumption the games take place, is that the government sticks with its current Olympic plans (with no overseas tourists and perhaps a limited number of domestic spectators), there are no cluster infections afterward and it doesn’t appear to the public that significant medical resources were diverted to the Olympics away from vaccinations.


Tetsuo Suzuki, a political journalist, says that if the final decision is to go ahead with the Tokyo Olympics, one of the things likely to happen and that could influence voters is that television viewers would notice changes in the tone of Olympic-related coverage.


“I think that TV stations that have been broadcasting arguments about canceling the Olympics would change, and concentrate on the Olympic events in order to build public excitement. But I don’t think people are going to be very excited, and overall support won’t be very warm,” Suzuki said, adding that the health risks are still a voter concern.


As to the possibility of canceling the Olympics, Suzuki and McElwain say it would be bad news for Suga — who would face pressure to resign in order to take political responsibility.


Canceling the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics would involve tough negotiations with the IOC, and, possibly, lawsuits over how much Tokyo should pay in terms of cancellation costs.


It might also raise questions about what happens to all of the Olympic-related investments made so far in Tokyo and elsewhere — questions that could put Suga and the ruling coalition in a defensive position come a general election.


In their worst case scenario, allowing the Tokyo Olympics to go ahead could leave Suga and the ruling coalition facing a presidential and a general election in the midst of a renewed national wave of infections, with voters told to stay at home if possible, businesses asked to close early and local medical facilities coming under strain.


Suzuki suggests cancellation would be a popular decision that might instead pay benefits for the LDP at election time.


“Cancellation will increase public support for Suga and the ruling parties. The risk is that corporate sponsors will seek compensation; dealing with this in the event of a cancellation is the most difficult problem for the government,” he acknowledges. “But the public would back Suga’s decision to cancel.”


McElwain says the fate of the Tokyo Olympics can’t be separated from progress the government makes in the coming days with the vaccine rollout.


“The question is whether or not concerns about incompetence early in the vaccine rollout will influence voters’ decision making,” he stresses. “Vaccinations and the Olympics are not ideological issues. They are about official competence, and public perceptions of that competence are fluid.”


McElwain predicts there will be enough progress with vaccines by the time of a general election that criticism about the rollout will have faded, and thus the risk of the LDP losing to the opposition parties will be low.


No political pundits have suggested that the LDP-Komeito coalition faces losing its simple majority in the Lower House, regardless of whether the games take place or are canceled. The most recent polls suggest the LDP, in particular, is in no danger of being overtaken by the main opposition parties.


While a Jiji News poll last week showed the Suga Cabinet’s support rate at just 32.2%, the LDP’s support rate was 21.4% — almost five times higher than the 4.4% rate for the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party.


Coalition partner Komeito’s rate was 2.6%, but that was still higher than Nippon Ishin no Kai (The Japan Innovation Party), with a 1.9% rate, and the Japanese Communist Party, at 1.5%.


However, whether there would still be a two-thirds majority of members who say they favor constitutional revision after a general election is less certain.


Currently, the LDP and Komeito, along with Nippon Ishin, have just enough members in the Lower House to form the supermajority needed to approve changes to the nation’s top law. Constitutional revision is expected to be a topic of debate in the election.

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