Experts doubt Abe can pull out of political spiral


Following the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s staggering loss in the July 29 Upper House election, all eyes are focused on whether embattled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can shore up his credibility with a new Cabinet.

Abe said immediately after the House of Councilors election that he would not step down, but pledged to replace his Cabinet, many of whose members had been involved in scandals or were the source of inflammatory gaffes. Abe’s refusal to step down irked many voters and politicians, and he and his Cabinet saw their public approval rating slip even further into record-low territory.

A Mainichi Shimbun telephone poll on the first weekend after the July 29 election put the Abe Cabinet’s support rate at a dismal 22 percent, down 9 points from a pre-election survey and less than one-third of Abe’s polling numbers when he took office last September.

In the same postelection survey, 56 percent of the pollees said Abe should resign.

Political observers say Abe’s fate now rides on how he overhauls his Cabinet. If he fails to impress, the chorus for his resignation will become too loud to tune out, they say.

Abe has so far kept mum about his new Cabinet. The shakeup is widely expected to take place Aug. 27 after he returns from his Aug. 19-25 tour of India, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Yasunori Sone, a professor of political science at Keio University’s graduate school of media and governance, said Abe will have a hard time finding brilliant Cabinet picks who can appease the public, the LDP and the now opposition-dominated Upper House, where the Democratic Party of Japan has become the No. 1 party.

Observers say the only chance Abe has to stay in office is to demonstrate he is able to be a true leader and make rational Cabinet selections, and shed the image that he only picks his cronies or those LDP factions pressure him into choosing.

When Abe selected his Cabinet last September, he gave priority to those who backed him in the LDP’s presidential election and politicians who shared his right-leaning ideology. Competency was not a determinant.

This strategy backfired. Abe has had to replace four Cabinet ministers since September because they either got entangled in funds scandals or made public gaffes.

“This time, Abe needs to appoint someone who can attract longtime supporters of the LDP,” said Iwao Osaka, a research associate at the University of Tokyo who specializes in media and politics. Losing the party’s old supporters is seen as one reason for the party’s crushing Upper House defeat, he said.

“Abe also needs someone who is critical of him and who has certain power within the party,” Osaka said, citing such lawmakers as Koichi Kato, a former LDP secretary general known as a pro-China pacifist, and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, who at one time emerged as a possible rival to Abe in the last LDP presidential poll but opted not to run.

Ex-Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba, who criticized Abe to his face at a party meeting this week, could be another choice, Osaka added.

Using lawmakers who have plenty of media exposure, including Defense Minister Yuriko Koike and former political scientist Yoichi Masuzoe, could help halt Abe’s sagging support by improving the LDP’s image, said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor specializing in political psychology at Meiji Gakuin University.

Or Abe could take a page from the playbook of his predecessor, the popular Junichiro Koizumi, and make a surprise appointment from the private sector, such as economist Heizo Takenaka, who came to symbolize Koizumi’s structural reforms.

But Keio’s Sone said Abe might not have that option.

Even if Abe managed to bring in high-profile people from business, academia or the media, they would have a hard time influencing Kasumigaseki, the hub of the nation’s bureaucracy, he said. They also would have difficulty getting the support of LDP politicians.

Given Abe’s shaky standing in the LDP, he cannot afford to continue ignoring the factions like the publicly popular Koizumi was able to do, Kawakami said. Abe has vowed, however, not to heed the factions’ Cabinet recommendations.

So far, media have reported Abe plans to appoint Foreign Minister Taro Aso as LDP secretary general, replacing Hidenao Nakagawa, who offered to resign to take responsibility for the election setback.

There is also speculation Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshihide Suga, one of Abe’s close aides, will be appointed chief Cabinet secretary and that Defense Minister Koike will keep her post.

If Abe’s new lineup proves unpopular, which Sone said is likely, he will face even stronger head winds.

“Abe is likely to see his support slip further, his party members grow more critical of him and Diet deliberations bog down,” Sone said. “Then things will fall into a vicious circle.”

There are already signs of turmoil.

Anti-Abe lawmakers from several LDP factions began gathering Wednesday to form a new group to demand policy changes.

The Democratic Party of Japan has meanwhile clearly indicated it intends to challenge the ruling coalition and is ready to oppose the bill for extending the Maritime Self-Defense Force deployment in the Indian Ocean, where MSDF warships refuel multinational forces engaged in the NATO-led antiterrorist operations in Afghanistan.

“Since we can’t still see the bottom of the spiral, we can’t forecast how long the next Cabinet will last,” Sone said.