National / Politics

With support rate in free fall, Abe eyes veterans for key posts in Cabinet reshuffle

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Embattled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe officially announced Tuesday that he will reshuffle his Cabinet on Thursday, with Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Toshimitsu Motegi and former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera expected to be given key portfolios in the new lineup.

The announcement, made during a regular Cabinet meeting, is widely seen as part of a desperate bid by Abe to shore up an approval rate that has plummeted in recent weeks amid a spate of scandals involving Cabinet ministers.

“A new Cabinet will continue promoting policies advocated by the administration, making the economic revitalization its top priority,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

Suga, Abe’s right-hand man, is expected to be reappointed to his position in the reshuffle.

He declined to comment on who Abe will tap as part of the next Cabinet lineup, but Kyodo News said Tuesday that Motegi and Onodera are likely to be given key positions.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, trade and industry minister Hiroshige Seko and infrastructure minister Keiichi Ishii are also likely to retain their positions, according to Kyodo.

Prime ministers often use Cabinet reshuffles to bolster the public image of their administrations and to shore up faltering approval ratings in media polls.

Abe, however, may be in for a rude awakening if past precedent holds.

Data from earlier Cabinet overhauls indicate that doing so may not dramatically boost approval ratings.

On average, a Cabinet reshuffle boosted the support rate just 3.47 percentage points in the 17 reshuffles since 1999, according to the results of polls conducted by public broadcaster NHK.

The approval rate of Abe’s Cabinet plummeted to 35 percent in July from 58 percent in February, as the prime minister and some of his ministers grappled with a number of scandals.

If his support rate in media polls dwindles, this erodes Abe’s political clout within the party since it reduces the chances of re-election for his follower in the LDP.

To combat this, unpopular Cabinet members such as Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda, education minister Hirokazu Matsuno and regional revitalization minister Kozo Yamamoto are all expected to be replaced.

Kaneda has been under harsh public criticism after he was unable to answer a number of key questions from opposition lawmakers in the Diet on a contentious bill to criminalize conspiracies that eventually became law.

Matsuno and Yamamoto were both linked to alleged government cronyism that favored school operator Kake Gakuen, a scandal that has badly dented the approval rate of Abe’s Cabinet in recent weeks.

During Tuesday’s news conference, Suga admitted that the Abe Cabinet had changed its tune on the Kake scandal on several occasions — inconsistencies that have “caused public distrust in the government.”

“It’s very important for us to sincerely explain when any questions are raised,” Suga said.

The latest free fall in Abe’s approval rating is likely triggering bitter memories of 2007, during Abe’s first stint as prime minister, when he was forced to step down after several Cabinet members were rocked by scandals.

To prevent a recurrence of that nightmare scenario, Abe reportedly plans to retain some key, scandal-free ministers in Thursday’s shake-up, including Finance Minister Taro Aso, who doubles as deputy prime minister.

On July 9 in Stockholm, Abe told reporters that he would not change “the basic framework” of the Cabinet in the next reshuffle, a comment that has been interpreted as a signal that he plans to retain some key members, in particular Suga and Aso.

“Mr. Suga should be definitely part of ‘the basic framework’ of the Cabinet,” a senior government official said earlier this month on the condition of anonymity.

“I cannot think of a Cabinet (led by Abe) without Mr. Suga,” the official added.

Also Tuesday, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, a party heavyweight and Abe loyalist, told reporters that the prime minister has already asked him to retain his post.