Polls show Abe is riding out storm of bad news


Staff Writer

In the span of just the past week, Tokyo stock prices have plummeted, data showed that Japan’s gross domestic product had shrunk and a number of Cabinet members and ruling lawmakers grappled with damaging scandals.

This growing storm has focused eyes on Nagatacho, the epicenter of Japanese politics, begging the question: How bad is the damage to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, and will it affect this summer’s planned Upper House election?

Media polls conducted separately by two major newspapers earlier this week have suggested the hit taken by the Abe government has been limited so far — despite the best efforts of critics and opposition lawmakers, who have played up the economic woes and embarrassing Cabinet scandals during recent Diet sessions.

The same opinion polls, however, have also shown that support for the Cabinet appears fragile and that the lack of a viable alternative — not strong support for the government — may be driving the poll results.

“We have retained a certain level of support and made achievements in past elections,” Sadakazu Tanigaki, secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party, told a news conference Monday.

“But the foundation (of voter support) is rather fragile. We should be wary about it,” he said when asked about the poll results.

According to a survey conducted from Friday through Sunday by the Yomiuri Shimbun, the Cabinet’s support rate fell 4 points to 52 percent from the previous poll last month.

Another poll, conducted by the Asahi Shimbun on Saturday and Sunday, also saw Abe’s support rate dip. That poll recorded a fall to 40 percent, down just 2 points from last month, despite Friday’s free fall in the Nikkei stock average and the ensuing chorus of economists arguing that the Abenomics policy mix had run out of steam.

“I don’t think the support rate fell significantly. It’s still above the 50 percent level,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga argued at his daily briefing Monday, referring to the Yomiuri poll.

“I think (the decline) is within a margin of error,” he said.

Indeed, the Yomiuri poll showed that despite the Cabinet’s faltering approval rate, support for the LDP, of which Abe is president, increased by 2 points to 42 percent. Support for the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, remained unchanged from the previous month at a mere 7 percent.

According to Jun Iio, a political science professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, a viable opposition force must show “a positive story” with alternative proposals if it hopes to win the hearts of mainstream voters.

“But the DPJ is just nitpicking (Abe’s) economic policies, without showing what it would do” if it took power, Iio said in a recent interview.

At the same time, Iio pointed out that several months remain before the Upper House election, which is slated for the summer.

If the economy deteriorates further and the DPJ spices up its economic policies, Abe’s ruling party could be vulnerable ahead of the election, he said.

According to the Yomiuri poll, a low support rate for the DPJ does not necessarily translate to strong support for the LDP.

Asked why they backed the Cabinet, 42 percent of the supporters said they did so because it is “better than the Cabinets of the past,” followed by 18 percent who cited Abe’s leadership.

Meanwhile, 44 percent of the 1,060 respondents said they disapprove of Abe’s economic policies, while 39 percent said they approve of them.

This appears to be reflective of Japan’s increasingly gloomy economic outlook, which over the past six weeks has radically shifted, putting the Cabinet, whose power base has often been easily affected by fluctuating stock prices, in danger.

After a sharp fall below the 15,000-point level Friday, the Nikkei 225 rebounded, closing at 15,836.36 on Wednesday. That level, however, is still far lower than last year’s close at 19,033 on Dec. 30, the highest year-end level since 1996.

On Monday the government announced that real GDP for the October-December quarter shank 1.4 percent on an annualized basis, giving even more ammunition to economists who claim that Abenomics is ending up a massive failure.

Another issue that has captured much attention in Nagatacho is whether Abe will again postpone the unpopular consumption tax hike to 10 percent from the current 8 percent. It is now scheduled for April 2017.

Abe has maintained that the tax hike will go off as planned, unless the economy is rocked by an extraordinarily large shock — something akin to the 2008 subprime financial crisis.

In postponing the previous plan to raise the tax rate, Abe dissolved the Lower House in November 2014 and, asking voters to approve his postponement plan, rode it to a landslide victory in the ensuing election that December.

Abe may try to repeat that strategy this time, observers say.

But if the economy further deteriorates, denting his support rate before the Upper House campaign, such a gamble may prove too risky for Abe.