National / Politics

Abe Cabinet weathers school scandal as Democratic Party's chronic weaknesses provide little alternative

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

The high-profile scandal involving nationalist Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen has once again brought to the fore the ability of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is linked to the affair, to maintain high public approval ratings.

Over the past month, the Abe administration has been rocked by media reports over the close relationship between first lady Akie Abe and the shady land deal involving the school operator, which has been severely lashed for its Shinto-based ultranationalistic education.

Newspapers and gossip TV shows have repeatedly run bizarre stories about Moritomo Gakuen over the past month that many believe should have dealt a harsh blow to Abe’s government, which has seemed invincible since its inauguration in December 2012.

Yet the Cabinet’s approval rate has suffered little in the latest media polls, remaining above 50 percent — impressive compared with Abe’s first Cabinet from 2006 to 2007 and those of the six Cabinets preceding the current administration.

An opinion poll conducted from Friday through Sunday by NHK found a 53 percent approval rating for Abe’s Cabinet, compared with 51 percent in March and 58 percent in February. A March 25-26 poll by Kyodo News indicated a support rate of 52.4 percent, down a shade from the 55.7 percent in a March 11-12 survey. Other major media polls showed similar results.

“The rates haven’t fallen very much, although some people may have expected a plunge,” said Masao Matsumoto, a professor of political science at Saitama University and an expert on media polls.

“I don’t think Abe’s approval rate will drastically fall unless something really extraordinary happens,” he said.

Indeed, Abe’s high approval rates have long puzzled political observers, in particular those critical of his conservative, nationalistic views.

Poll results by major media organizations show that most voters were not happy with some of Abe’s controversial policies, particularly his quest to amend the pacifist Constitution and the September 2015 enactment of security laws that expanded the legal scope of overseas operations by the Self-Defense Forces. Yet the Cabinet’s overall approval ratings have been high, or have quickly rebounded after each fall.

Matsumoto believes the results are not contradictory.

“People have now become very conservative because they can’t have a clear vision for their future,” he said. They are anxious, so they don’t want to change the status quo. That can be said of current economic conditions, too.”

Voters may have been frustrated with specific issues, but they are not thinking of kicking Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party out of power, given the lack of alternative political forces, he said.

“The Democratic Party is not recognized as an alternative to the LDP. People are not thinking of changing the government,” Matsumoto said.

In fact, a quick look at a long-term graph showing NHK’s monthly polls on Cabinets and political party support rates backs Matsumoto’s observations.

The voter support rate for the Democratic Party has been hovering at very low levels — under 10 percent — in most of the period since January 2013, lagging far behind that of the LDP’s 35 to 40 percent. Abe launched his current administration at the end of December 2012.

NHK polls show that the Democratic Party’s support rate hasn’t been affected by any major political event during that period.

The lowest point so far for Abe’s Cabinet was the 37 percent support rate in August 2015, shortly before the LDP-Komeito ruling bloc forcibly rammed the security laws through the Diet.

Even at that time, the support rate for the Democratic Party did not go up significantly, which suggests its focused attack on Abe’s nationalistic security policy failed to find any traction with voters.

But this may not be surprising.

When people are surveyed before elections on what political agenda they prioritize when voting, the economy, welfare and employment were always on top, with security issues ranked far behind them.

“Everyone has a stake in the economy and welfare. Other individual issues may be difficult to understand, such as those concerning national security and nuclear policies,” Matsumoto said.

“I don’t think many people have clear opinions on those issues.”

The support rate polls appear to suggest another key fact, as pointed out by political analysts.

The Democratic Party is usually described as the largest opposition force. But public support rates have clearly shown that people who support the Democratic Party did not make up the second-largest group of voters over the past five years. The second-largest, and sometimes the biggest, group is the unaffiliated voters who don’t support any particular party.

NHK polls over the past five years have shown that around 30 to 40 percent of respondents consistently haven’t supported any particular party, almost matching the number of LDP supporters during the same period.

Many unaffiliated voters, called mutoha in Japanese, only decide when, or if, they go to the polls who to cast a ballot for at that time.

“We have so many mutoha voters that the result of an election is decided depending on which party they vote for each time,” Matsumoto said.

Mutoha voters are considered generally critical of the Abe government, but given the deep disillusion with the Democratic Party, which failed to meet a number of key election promises while in power from 2009 through 2012, unaffiliated voters aren’t seeking to oust the LDP, Matsumoto explained.

“Mutoha make their decisions based on their judgment of the performance of a Cabinet, not a party. So the approval rate of the Cabinet now carries a very heavy weight in Japanese politics,” he said.

Yukio Maeda, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo, has a different take on the polling data.

Analyzing fluctuations in approval ratings in media polls, Maeda has concluded that respondents tend to reward a Cabinet when it is actively or stably engaging in some political agenda, and pay little attention to what it is trying to ultimately achieve, he said.

“People don’t attach much importance to what the government actually is aiming for, or which direction it is taking,” Maeda said.

In this sense, Abe’s Cabinet has been very successful in impressing voters that it is actively engaged, regardless of what it has actually achieved, Maeda said.

For example, Abe has succeeded in selling his Abenomics economic policies consisting of his “three arrows:” ultra-loose monetary policies, aggressive fiscal spending and structural economic reforms to raise Japan’s long-term growth potential.

The first two arrows had a substantial impact on the economy, but they were originally considered mere temporary measures to earn more time to implement the third arrow of structural reforms.

Abe has yet to achieve substantial structural reforms, Maeda pointed out.

“Abe has kept stirring the expectations of voters” and this has helped keep the Cabinet approval rate relatively high, he said.

Asked about the impact from the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, Maeda said he doesn’t believe it will seriously damage the Abe administration.

So far Akie Abe has been in the spotlight, but no evidence has emerged to suggest any direct involvement by the prime minister, he pointed out.

But if new evidence emerges and the intense media coverage continues, it may gradually reduce the approval rate of Abe’s Cabinet “like body-blows” in a boxing match, Maeda said.