(Bloomberg) -- The lawmaker leading polls to be Japan’s next prime minister cast doubt on plans to hold the delayed Olympics next year, citing uncertainty over the coronavirus that he said would also affect his own political future.
Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister who’s favored by the public to replace long-serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said whether he runs for leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party next year depends on the virus and whether the Olympics can be held. The premier and the International Olympic Committee made the unprecedented decision Monday to postpone the Games until July 2021 -- two months before Abe’s term as LDP leader ends.
“We don’t know if the Olympics can be held before the end of Abe’s term,” Ishiba said in an interview Tuesday. “It depends on the virus being under control, and not just in Japan. If no one comes from Europe or America, it’s not the Olympics. It’s an Asian athletics event.”
Ishiba has criticized Abe’s handling of the virus and the premier’s policy known as “Abenomics,” which the lawmaker said has contributed to income inequality. Some experts have already flagged the risk of the economy staying in reverse for a whole year as the delayed Olympics compounds the effect of the virus. That’s a far cry from the stable growth promised by Abe when he launched his signature program more than seven years ago.
“We need to rethink everything about Japan,” Ishiba said. “Stocks are not the whole economy. We need to change the system where all wealth accumulates with stockholders and people who manage companies.”
After serving as minister for regional revitalization in Abe’s cabinet until 2016, Ishiba distanced himself from the administration. Amid simmering cabinet scandals and dissatisfaction with Abe’s early handling of the infection, that has bolstered his status in opinion polls. A survey published by the Nikkei newspaper this week found Ishiba was the favorite to succeed Abe as prime minister.
Ishiba has said that Japan should have shut its borders to visitors from China as soon as infections began to skyrocket, a move that he said could’ve prevented a serious outbreak that occurred on Japan’s main northern island of Hokkaido.
“People who are dissatisfied with Abe support me,” Ishiba said. “Those people have been neck and neck with Abe supporters and recently I’m pulling ahead.”
But the crisis in Japan appears to have put the brakes on a slide in Abe’s support -- with most polls now showing it steadying.
The decision to postpone the Olympics frees Abe to call an election when he sees fit -- potentially as soon as this summer -- with the opposition mired in disarray. If Abe takes his party to victory, it would increase his power in picking a successor, possibly making it more difficult for challengers such as Ishiba.
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