News Analysis: Japan's Abe on shaky ground amid all-time low public support rate

Source: Xinhua| 2017-07-18 20:13:12|Editor: ZD
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TOKYO, July 18 (Xinhua) -- The approval rating for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet plummeting to a record low in the latest media polls is a testament to the Japanese public's growing mistrust of the prime minister and his closest Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) allies, political experts here told Xinhua.

Numerous opinion polls have showed that support for the premier's cabinet has hit an all-time low, including one survey revealing that the public's approval rating had tumbled as much as 15.2 points to just 29.9 percent, the lowest since Abe took office in December 2012.

The meteoric drop in support, experts attested, has been triggered by a number of factors, one of which has been Abe's failure to properly account for himself in matters related to an influence-peddling scandal involving the selection of a new school to be opened by an operator who is a close friend of Abe's.

Other detrimental issues, according to the polls and political watchers here, are connected to his ministers' and LDP lawmakers' gaffes, all of which have left the future course of the Abe administration and the prime minister's leadership itself on very shaky ground.

"With each new scandal involving the prime minister or other senior politicians from the ruling camp, such as allegations that he used his influence to help his friend at Kake Educational Institute secure the opening of a new school in a special deregulated zone, Abe's grip on power loosens," Asian affairs commentator Kaoru Imori told Xinhua.

"We're seeing in some polls that almost 80 percent of the public are not satisfied with the government constantly denying that Abe's office was complicit in Kake being shown favoritism, and, more specifically, that public mistrust of the prime minister himself is growing," Imori added.

He went on to say that following repeated refusals to demands by opposition parties, including the main Democratic Party, to give sworn testimony in parliament on the matter, the prime minister's recent U-turn saying that he'll now allow himself to be grilled over the scandal, shows a "certain desperation in trying to restore the public faith in him and his administration."

Imori pointed out and disputed the fact that Abe's representatives said his about-turn had nothing to do with the tumbling support rates, and his sentiments were echoed by other sources with knowledge of the matter.

"Despite the official denial that the declining ratings altered Mr. Abe's decision, it is clear Mr. Abe had no choice. If he continues to reject the opposition's requests, even more people will suppose that he is hiding something," University of Tokyo political watcher Yu Uchiyama said.

In addition to the prime minister's volte-face, other political experts here believed that Abe's planned Cabinet reshuffle next month, which might involve half of his current members being replaced by a younger lineup, is also an attempt to rescue himself and his party from what could be a very bleak, if not terminal outlook.

While speculation is swirling as to whether Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida will retain his portfolio amid a recent buzz that he wishes to relinquish his post and make a future challenge for the premiership, and if Defense Minister Tomomi Inada will be replaced, political watchers have pointed out that one think is certain, there are growing numbers of dissatisfied lawmakers within the rank and file of the LDP.

"Mr. Kishida was obedient to Mr. Abe, but some young politicians in his faction have been dissatisfied with the situation. Their voices are getting louder now," said Uchiyama.

Other analysts believed that Kishida may encourage aides within his party faction, which differs to that of Abe, to step up to Cabinet positions, so they will be able to further leverage the party from the inside and from the top in the future.

Further clouding the outlook for the Abe-led administration was the pummeling the LDP took in the recent Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election -- widely seen as a barometer of the future direction of national politics -- by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike's newly-formed Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First party).

The heavy defeat for the LDP, scandals aside, which also factored into the slumping support rate, was owing to the majority of citizens here opposing the autocratic fashion in which controversial legislation has been repeatedly forced through parliament and into law, the most recent example being the contentious conspiracy law, and also, more pertinently, a rejection of Abe's plans to revise Japan's pacifist constitution, experts said.

"The results were a punishment by voters who were frustrated by the recent developments in the LDP. Whether Abe can stay on and achieve his long-cherished revision to Japan's war-renouncing constitution hinges on his 'damage control'," Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation said.

Other authorities on the matter have concurred, with Koichi Nakano, an international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, saying, "The LDP's thrashing could make it harder for Abe to pursue his cherished goal of revising the U.S.-drafted constitution's pacifist Article 9 by 2020, a politically divisive agenda."

"His prime motive to stay in power is his desire to revise the Constitution, but once his popularity really starts to fall, that becomes very difficult to do," Nakano said.

With the ruling party's scandals also involving the LDP Executive Acting Secretary-General Hakubun Shimomura allegedly accepting donations from Kake Educational Institution in violation of Japan's political funds control law, a junior lawmaker resigning following claims she physically and verbally abused a secretary, and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada making remarks which violated the Self-Defense Forces law, some pundits believed Abe will be hard pushed to recover his former political prowess.

"I think it will be hard for him to rebound and his popularity will continue to decline. Up until now, he's been a Teflon premier, all the scandals just sort of wash off and everybody forgets. But this was a bloody blow," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University.

The broad consensus among political pundits, professors and commentators here is that at a bare minimum Abe and the LDP are in trouble in the near term and will have to pull out all the stops to regain public trust.

Further down the line, however, Abe's rivals in his party will likely be motivated by the LDP's overall failings and challenge him in a leadership race in September 2018, which could, as one expert explained, put a full stop at the end of the sentence.

"Abe cannot expect lasting, comfortable support within the party, especially after such an election loss. Seems to me it's the beginning of the end of Abe's rule," said Nakano.