Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was quick to abandon two scandal-tainted ministers.
He didn’t even try to persuade Yuko Obuchi and Midori Matsushima to remain trade and industry minister and justice minister, letting them step down Monday, a mere five days after a financial scandal surfaced against Obuchi.
Abe may have in mind the nightmare he suffered as prime minister in 2006 and 2007: three ministers were forced to step down and another committed suicide over scandals involving their alleged misuse of political funds.
Those scandals and resignations dogged his first Cabinet, caused its popularity to plummet and helped nail the coffin lid on Abe’s first term in office.
Thus in relaunching his leadership in December 2012, close aides, most notably Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, were particularly careful in choosing scandal-free Cabinet ministers. They were ordered to observe moderation in public to prevent gaffes.
That vigilance slipped on Sept. 3.
The reshuffle that day was a reluctant one, but Abe felt obliged to give ministerial experience to some of the dozens of rank-and-file members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party who had been begging for it.
In doing so Abe tapped five female lawmakers in a bid to underscore his call for empowering women.
Abe probably lacked a lot of choices in selecting experienced and scandal-free female lawmakers. Of the LDP’s 410 Diet members, only 40 are women.
Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University, said Obuchi’s funding scandal is particularly serious. It is a clear matter for resignation because it could be construed as bribing voters — a grave violation of the election campaign law.
But at the same time, Iwai said there is a big difference with Abe’s first prime ministership in 2006 and 2007: The ruling camp now boasts an overwhelming majority in the Diet, and unlike seven years ago he faces few political foes within his own party.
“If the scandals end here, Abe will be able to manage the situation,” Iwai said. “But if any more scandals emerge, the situation in the Diet will be rather troublesome for him.”
The resignations come at a time when Abe’s administration appears to be losing some public support.
A poll conducted by Kyodo News on Saturday and Sunday showed his rating fell 6.8 points to 48.1 percent compared with a month earlier, while disapproval surged 11.2 points to 40.2 percent.
The poll also found that 84.8 percent reported feeling none of the purported benefits of the economic recovery touted by Abe’s Cabinet.
The prime minister will face another tough challenge in December, when he is set to decide whether to raise the consumption tax rate from the current 8 percent to 10 percent next year. The Kyodo poll showed 65.9 percent oppose the hike.
Matsushima, as justice minister, was in charge of overseeing legal authorities, including prosecutors, which is why her alleged violation of the election campaign law was seen as a major problem.
To cope with once-rampant corruption in elections, current law sets strict rules on what a candidate can and cannot do in campaigning.
For example, former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera was forced in 2000 to resign from the Diet after he was found to have distributed incense sticks to local voters, which was regarded as a bribe.
Onodera was eventually punished with a fine of ¥400,000 and was barred from running for office for three years.
The Democratic Party of Japan last week filed an accusation with the Tokyo District Prosecutors’ Office, urging it to launch an investigation into Matsushima’s alleged transgressions.