With his popularity diving, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is taking a new strategy by focusing on boosting local economies by using every available option.
On Friday, Abe set up a special office that will deal with policies to help rural economies. The office will be in charge of coordinating all public works bills to be submitted to the Diet.
The same day, his government announced it will create a special budget framework worth ¥4 trillion for fiscal 2015, which will be spent to boost rural economies and increase the country’s economic growth potential. It will also force each ministry to save about 10 percent of its discretionary budgets.
To concentrate on those economic measures, the Cabinet has canceled a plan to submit all controversial security bills to the extraordinary Diet session starting this fall, including those allowing Japan to use the right of collective self-defense.
Those bills will be submitted only after the Diet enacts the fiscal 2015 budget next spring.
Why is Abe so desperate to boost rural economies now?
Officially, government officials have stressed the country urgently needs to re-invigorate regional economies to halt population outflows to big city areas like Tokyo and Osaka.It will eventually help stem the rapid shrinking of the population and the demise of many small rural towns, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
“The population is rapidly decreasing and aging. This problem is particularly serious in rural areas,” Suga reminded a news conference Thursday.
But to observers, other political reasons look more convincing: Abe is facing a number of key local elections in upcoming months at the same time his popularity with voters is dropping.
Speculation is rife among political observers that Abe’s popularity may have already peaked. All recent media polls show his approval rate plunging to its lowest since he came to power for the second time in December 2012. Disapproval rates are spiking as well.
According to the July 19-20 joint poll carried out by the conservative daily Sankei Shimbun and TV broadcaster Fuji News Network, the approval rate of Abe’s Cabinet fell 3.1 points to 45.6 percent, the lowest ever.
Sankei — an enthusiastic supporter of Abe’s Cabinet, including his military drive — pointed out that Abe’s recent decision to change the government’s interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution to allow Japan to use the right to collective self-defense, was likely the major factor in his polling woes.
Some 35.3 percent of 1,000 respondents approved the decision and 56 percent disapproved. And a total of 85.7 percent said the government did not provide a detailed enough explanation of the shift.
At the same time, Sankei warned, public frustration with Abe’s economic policies has grown. According to the poll, 47.1 percent said they disapproved of Abe’s economic policies, up 5.2 points from the previous poll, while 39.4 percent approved them, down 4.9 percent.
Asked about Abe’s rapidly dropping status in the opinion polls, a senior government official close to Abe said the government will “keep carefully explaining” Abe’s controversial reinterpretation policy and try to win over the voters.
When asked what policy Abe will put priority on next, the official immediately responded in two words: “Local ‘Abenomics,’ ” meaning economic policies to boost rural economies.
Abenomics consists of a set of three “arrows” — aggressive monetary easing, more public works to temporarily prop up the economy, and vows of structural economic reforms to boost Japan’s middle- to long-term growth potential.
According to Abe, “local Abenomics” refers to steps that will be taken to spread the effects of his “three arrows” to less populated, rural areas. But the main part of his strategy is likely to be good old public work projects.
Indeed, Abe has many reasons to urgently allocate more of the budget to the country. Gubernatorial elections will be held in Fukushima on Oct. 26 and in Okinawa on Nov. 16, and the LDP candidates are expected to face an uphill battle in both.
An LDP defeat in the former is likely to affect the country’s nuclear policy, while a defeat in the later will affect the plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma elsewhere within Okinawa Prefecture. A loss by an LDP-backed candidate may even damage the Japan-U.S. military alliance.
In early December, Abe faces a decision on whether to again hike the unpopular consumption tax from 8 percent to 10 percent in October next year, completing its doubling from 5 percent.
Then, in the spring of next year, elections will be held nationwide to choose heads of municipalities and local assembly members. The spring elections will be particularly important for pacifist New Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner.