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Once seen as invincible, Abe beset by scandal on two fronts as questions swirl

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Reuters

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, now in a rare fifth year as leader, is battling scandals on two separate fronts as questions swirl about his ties to a nationalist school involved in a murky land deal and his defense minister faces calls to resign.

The scandals, which analysts say present the most serious crisis for Abe since he returned to power in 2012, appear likely to further erode his support rate, which now stands at about 50 percent.

They are also denting his image as an invincible leader with a shot at becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, although so far most political experts are betting he can survive.

“I think his dream of a superlong administration is beginning to crumble,” said Minoru Morita, an independent political analyst.

Abe’s term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party president ends in 2018, but a rule change means he can run for a third three-year term, allowing him to remain leader as long as the LDP stays in power.

The furor is distracting the government at a time when Japan needs to focus on economic talks with U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and domestic issues, including structural reforms to generate growth.

In the latest twist in the ballooning school scandal, the government’s top spokesman denied Friday claims that Abe’s wife, Akie, had not personally donated money to Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga had said on Thursday that Abe did not donate money either himself or via a third party, including his wife.

The comments came after opposition lawmakers said the principal, Yasunori Kagoike, told them Akie had donated ¥1 million ($8,800) in 2015. Akie had been set to become honorary head of the school but cut her ties after the scandal erupted.

Kagoike, a member of the nationalist lobby group Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi), which has close ties to Abe and his Cabinet, is to testify before the Diet on Thursday.

“Unless the opposition handles this poorly … Abe has a lot to lose, potentially,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “It has been because of a lack of alternatives that Abe was able to survive, but people are starting to wonder if he is invincible.”

Abe has denied he or Akie intervened in the murky land deal negotiated by the operator of the school, whose curriculum includes prewar-style patriotic education, or helped it get accredited.

He has said he would resign if evidence to the contrary were found.

Abe is also suffering from a separate affair plaguing his defense chief, Tomomi Inada, a political protege some had tipped as a future prime minister.

Inada on Thursday launched a special investigation after media reports that defense officials had tried to hide logs showing a worsening security situation in South Sudan, where Japanese troops are taking part in a U.N.-led peacekeeping operation.

The government announced last week that the troops would halt their controversial mission around the end of May, but denied that security concerns affected the decision.

Opposition lawmakers have stepped up their calls for Inada to resign. They had already targeted her after she had to correct a comment about her links to Moritomo Gakuen.

Suga said he hoped Inada would carry out the probe quickly.

“If the reports are true, then public trust in the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces will be greatly damaged,” Suga said.

Abe, 62, abruptly quit in 2007 after a year in office plagued by scandals in his Cabinet, a devastating election loss and ill health.