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Emboldened by Abe’s dive in polls, opposition bolsters calls for key figures to testify over Moritomo scandal

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continued to face the backlash from his cronyism scandals on Monday as opposition parties made more vocal demands at a special Diet session for key individuals — including first lady Akie Abe — to give sworn testimony in the Diet.

After Monday’s Upper House session, representative committee members from the ruling and opposition parties met to discuss whether to summon some of the key figures reportedly involved in the shady land deal to school operator Moritomo Gakuen.

But the ruling coalition only said it could not make a decision until its senior executives meet Tuesday morning, stalling the day’s talks, according to Democratic Party lawmaker Takanori Kawai.

The opposition bloc went on the offensive, seemingly encouraged by the Cabinet’s plummeting public support rates in several opinion polls over the weekend.

Polls conducted by the Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, Kyodo News and Nippon News Network all reported falls of around 10 points in the Cabinet’s approval rate from last month that left it polling between 30.3 percent and 38.7 percent.

The Asahi’s poll, conducted on Saturday and Sunday, said its approval rate had tanked to 31 percent — the lowest since Abe took office for the second time in December 2012.

During Monday’s special session in the Upper House Budget Committee, Abe repeated that neither he nor his wife played any part in the Finance Ministry’s decision to lease land in Osaka Prefecture to school operator Moritomo Gakuen in 2015, or to sell the state land at a deep discount to Moritomo in 2016.

He also pointed out that the Moritomo-related documents released March 12 by the Finance Ministry contained no mention that either he or his wife was involved in the negotiations.

“It’s clear from the documents that neither I nor my wife played any role,” he said of the released papers, which included sections deleted by ministry officials before they were shown to lawmakers last year.

Akira Koike of the Japanese Communist Party noted that 72 percent of the respondents to the Asahi poll said they were not convinced by Abe’s denials.

The opposition camp argued that the original documents before the alterations apparently show Moritomo made key progress in its land negotiations with the Finance Ministry after Akie Abe was quoted by Moritomo chief Yasunori Kagoike as saying, “Please go ahead with” the project in her talks with a ministry official in April 2014.

“She is the wife of the prime minister, someone that ministry officials need to give more consideration to than the average Diet member,” Koike said during the Upper House session.

Ministry officials deleted all mentions of Akie Abe from the papers to hide her apparent influence on the negotiations, according to Koike.

With the public apparently unconvinced by the prime minister’s denials, the results of the latest Kyodo News poll show that 25.4 percent of the respondents think former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, Abe’s main political rival, is the person who should be elected as next head of the LDP in September.

Abe, who held the No. 1 position in the previous poll in February, came in third at 21.7 percent this time. Ishiba was followed by Shinjiro Koizumi, a Lower House member and son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

In an LDP presidential election, half the votes are cast by representatives of its regional chapters, who are more likely to be affected by the sentiments of the general public. The party’s Diet members in Tokyo hold the other half.

If the Cabinet’s approval ratings continue to fall, it could provide “just cause” for some LDP executives to rebel against Abe in the September election, said Masao Matsumoto, a professor of political science at Saitama University and an expert in opinion poll analysis.

“You still can’t tell what damage (the Moritomo scandal) will have on Abe as far as the September presidential election is concerned,” Matsumoto added.

“The big question for voters is, ‘What should we do after replacing Abe?’ That’s why the approval rate rebounded last year,” he said.

Last fall, public support for the Cabinet fell in the wake of a separate cronyism scandal involving school operator Kake Gakuen.

Support, however, eventually rebounded due to the unpopularity of the fragmented opposition camp, Matsumoto pointed out.

In fact, the latest media polls show that the support rates for the opposition are still dwindling while the rate for the LDP has only fallen slightly despite the latest developments in the Moritomo scandal.

According to Kyodo News, the LDP’s approval rate fell 3.3 percentage points from February to 36.2 percent, while the rate for the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, edged up only 0.4 point to 11.5 percent.

If Abe is to be replaced, it will require an internal power struggle within the LDP, and the opposition camp will play no part, Matsumoto said.

If any key players in the scandal, such as Nobuhisa Sagawa, former head of the ministry’s Financial Bureau, which was in charge of the land deal, are summoned to the Diet for testimony, it will push down the Cabinet’s approval rate further, Matsumoto said. But voters still haven’t found a leader who can replace Abe, he added.