Spending hours defending his security policies on television, scrapping a ¥252 billion ($2 billion) Olympic stadium plan and playing up concerns about China, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is battling to claw back a slide in support.
His approval rating plunged below 40 percent in polls taken after he pushed bills through the Diet last week to expand the role of the Self-Defense Forces. While he’s at no immediate risk of being ousted, he must avoid dropping into the danger zone around the 20 percent mark at which successive leaders have been toppled at the ballot box or by their party.
That means assuaging public fears over his defense bills and returning the focus to his economic policies, which helped propel him to a second election win in December.
An end to Abe’s administration and thus his plans for the economy would be negative for foreign investor sentiment in Japan, Stephen Church of Haitong International Research Ltd. in Tokyo, said by email. “There is the possibility that the Abe Cabinet is facing a terminal tipping point in its public support.”
The ratings slide risks distracting Abe from his so-called three arrows of “Abenomics” — unprecedented monetary easing, government spending and business deregulation — that he pledged on taking office in 2012.
“I would like the government to focus on Abenomics, but now they seem to be all about security and national stadium issues,” said Tsutomu Fujita, vice chairman of Citigroup Global Markets Japan Inc. “I’m concerned he won’t be able to spare a lot of energy for economics.”
Abe’s need to avoid a downward spiral at the polls may bolster expectations for further Bank of Japan stimulus, according to Daisaku Ueno, a currency strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities, who sees 30 percent support as the key level to be maintained.
Abe is conducting a media blitz to reassure the public about the security laws that passed the Lower House on June 16 against a backdrop of street demonstrations, and are now set for debate in the less powerful upper chamber.
“Support for the security bills is unfortunately weak,” Abe told a Fuji TV show Monday. “This tough result probably comes because understanding has not progressed.”
He followed that appearance with further TV and radio interviews this week. Opponents held another large demonstration outside his official residence Friday.
A poll conducted by Kyodo News on July 17-18 showed 62 percent of respondents opposed the security legislation. Approval for Abe’s Cabinet slumped by almost 10 percentage points from June to 37.7 percent.
While Abe has largely avoided singling out China as a threat that necessitates the tougher security stance, the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday released photographs and details of what it said were Chinese rigs near Japan’s side of the East China Sea. Japan has long argued that such developments may siphon off gas from underwater structures extending into its own exclusive economic zone.
“There will certainly be further negative news in terms of the deliberations in the Upper House on the security bills,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Do they have good news? Do they have something to turn things around in the weeks to come?”
Fighting on another front to win back voters, Abe stepped last week into a dispute over the ballooning cost of the main stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, scrapping an unpopular design. It’s unclear what savings will be made, or whether voters will be satisfied.
Events next month are unlikely to boost Abe’s popularity. He’ll make a statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and a nuclear plant that was shut down after the 2011 Fukushima triple meltdown is set to be restarted.
A possible visit to China in September to meet President Xi Jinping could help reassure voters that Abe doesn’t plan to take a more aggressive stance, according to Katsuhiko Nakamura, executive director of think tank Asian Forum Japan.
While Abe quit as prime minister just a year into office the first time around in 2007 amid a similar slide in support, such a scenario is unlikely for now. No prominent challenger has emerged to fight him in a ballot for the leadership of the ruling party in September, and no opposition party has more than single-digit support ahead of an upper house election next year.
“It’s not a crisis,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, senior fellow at The Tokyo Foundation think tank. “There is no alternative either outside the LDP or within it.”