How Scandals and Gaffes Damaged Japan PM Shinzo Abe


In less than two months, Shinzo Abe’s public support has nosedived. Polls show many voters have lost trust in the Japanese prime minister after a series of scandals. And they think his long-running administration, in power since 2012, has turned arrogant. The popularity plunge has already caused pain: Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party suffered a defeat in last month’s election for Tokyo’s local assembly. The question now is how far it will affect national elections due before the end of 2018.

1. What’s turned voters against Abe?

His problems began with a ruckus over his wife’s connections to the operator of a kindergarten who was given a sweetheart land deal to open an elementary school. Then a second education-related scandal unfolded when a close friend of Abe’s received government support to open a veterinary college. Gaffes and missteps by LDP lawmakers haven’t helped: Defense Minister Tomomi Inada resigned July 28 over a cover-up involving the military’s reports on its peacekeeping activities in South Sudan. Neither has rushing through a controversial anti-conspiracy bill, or Abe’s apparent haste to revise the pacifist constitution.

2. Does this mean Abe will be forced to step down?

Most analysts say he will limp on because of the lack of compelling alternatives. Abe, 62, has denied involvement in the scandals. The main opposition Democratic Party has failed to capitalize on the situation, with its leader resigning due to poor approval ratings. If Abe stays in power through 2020, he’ll be the longest-serving Japanese prime minister in history.

3. Who might be the next party leader?

LDP rivals are positioning themselves for a leadership election expected in September 2018. A poll found the public’s top choice was former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who lost to Abe in 2012 and has become an increasingly outspoken critic of the administration. Since the selection of LDP leaders often depends on internal party politics rather than public opinion, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, the head of a major LDP faction, is also a strong contender, especially now that he has distanced himself from Abe by leaving the cabinet.

4. Is there anything Abe can do?

Faltering Japanese premiers have often relied on cabinet reshuffles to bolster support, especially by appointing younger faces or women to convey a fresh image. But Abe has little room for risky appointments this time, and in a shake-up last week he retained stalwarts such as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Finance Minister Taro Aso. "If you’re looking for scandal-free people who are good at debating, you end up with people who have already served," says Tomoaki Iwai, a professor at Nihon University in Tokyo.

5. When will Abe call the next election?

He’ll most likely hold off for as long as possible, says Yu Uchiyama, a professor of politics at Tokyo University. An alternative scenario would be to go to the nation this year in a bid to preempt the possible formation of a national opposition party by popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. That option has become more likely with the resignation of the opposition leader, according to Michael Cucek, an adjunct professor at Temple University, Japan.

6. What does this all mean for policy?

Abe has vowed to focus on the economy, a pledge that has helped him win all national elections since 2012. But he has not abandoned his plan to amend the U.S.-drafted, post-World War II constitution so that it recognizes and legitimizes Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. The question is whether he can appoint a cabinet capable of navigating both issues. Rival LDP pressure groups have formed, one to push for more spending to bolster the economy and another whose members have warned that the indebted country is on the verge of fiscal collapse.

7. What are the markets saying?

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. recently cut its six-month forecast on the benchmark Topix share index, saying that political uncertainty will drive investors to book profits. A sudden resignation by Abe would be very disappointing for markets, UBS Group AG analysts wrote.

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