Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to quell burgeoning voter distrust Monday by reasserting his claim that he never rigged the decision-making process behind the opening of a rare, new veterinary department at a university run by his close friend Kotaro Kake.

Abe’s appearance at an ad hoc session of the Lower House Budget Committee came amid plunging support for his scandal-tainted Cabinet that has clouded his prospects for winning a historic third term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party. A third term would last through 2021 and help him pursue his longtime dream of amending the pacifist Constitution.

A poll conducted over the weekend by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper said Abe’s popularity had sunk 10 points from the previous month to 26 percent — the lowest since he returned to power in December 2012. That follows a Jiji Press poll a few weeks ago that found his support had fallen below 30 percent for the first time.

Throughout the day, to dispel public dismay at what is widely perceived as the hubris of his 4½-year-old administration, Abe tried to remain humble.

“This is a matter my friend (Kake) is involved in. So we can’t blame voters for harboring skepticism . . . I will make my utmost effort to explain myself thoroughly,” he said.

“Mr. Kake and I go way back. We were friends even before I became a politician. But not once did he try to achieve something by taking advantage of my status and position. I want to make it clear that he never approached me about creating a new veterinary department,” he said.

Opening a new veterinary department requires government approval, but the education ministry has rejected applications for decades to prevent a glut in veterinarians from developing.

In January, however, school operator Kake Gakuen won permission to open one for the first time in more than five decades under a state-sponsored deregulation program — a feat Abe touted as an example of his ability to break through regulatory barriers.

To the disbelief of the opposition, however, Abe claimed on Monday that it wasn’t until Jan. 20, when Kake’s school officially won the bid, that he learned his close friend had applied for the program.

This is despite the fact that Abe attended meetings last year to discuss the very same program and dined and played golf with Kake several times between July and December, according to a document presented by the Democratic Party.

“It’s hard to believe you knew nothing about Mr. Kake’s application until January,” DP lawmaker Hiroshi Ogushi said.

Abe said he had only recognized the applicant as the city of Imabari, Ehime Prefecture. Imabari is where Kake’s school is based.

Also summoned to the Diet were former Vice Education Minister Kihei Maekawa and Abe’s aide Hiroto Izumi.

Maekawa turned his back on the government earlier this year by attesting to the authenticity of documents leaked from the education ministry that suggest Abe used his influence to sway the race in Kake’s favor.

On Monday, Maekawa accused Izumi of pressuring him into giving preferential treatment to Kake’s school during a closed-door meeting in September.

“I’m telling you this on behalf of Prime Minister Abe,” Maekawa quoted Izumi as telling him at the meeting.

While acknowledging that the meeting with Maekawa took place, Izumi denied that he ever mentioned Kake Gakuen by name and adamantly said he only conveyed Abe’s strong eagerness to speed up deregulation.

Frustrated with their contradictory remarks, Ogushi repeatedly urged Abe to take the initiative in allowing them to be summoned to the Diet as sworn witnesses so that their failure to speak the truth will result in them being held culpable for perjury.

At Monday’s session, the two were testifying as unsworn witnesses.

Although Maekawa said earlier in the year that he was ready to give sworn testimony on the matter, Abe remained reluctant, saying it was something that should be decided by the Diet, which his party controls.

Also under fire was Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, who has been accused of approving an institutional cover-up of politically sensitive Ground Self-Defense Force activity logs detailing the security situation in conflict-riven South Sudan.

The opposition repeated its demands that Inada to be kicked out of the Cabinet, but Abe responded by saying he expected her to follow through on her duties, while noting he would “sincerely accept” criticism for his decision to give her the defense portfolio in the first place.

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