Wednesday’s passage of a record-high spending budget for fiscal 2018 brought closure to a tumultuous first half of this year’s ordinary Diet session that witnessed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s approval rating nosedive to a dangerous level amid an unfolding document-tampering scandal.
With that, the prime minister can now shift his focus to diplomacy — his strong suit — as he prepares for a series of high-profile meetings with world leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump, as early as next month.
By showcasing his diplomatic skills, Abe, experts say, may be able to regain momentum for winning a historic third term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which holds its election in September, though much hinges upon on whether his approval rating improves and what prosecutors probing the scandal do.
On Wednesday, the Upper House of the Diet passed a budget worth ¥97.71 trillion that features a record ¥5.2 trillion in defense spending, including upgrades for ballistic missile defense systems that come amid increased concern over the growing threat posed by North Korea.
Recent opinion polls showed support for Abe’s Cabinet plummeting by some 10 percent due to the scandal that saw the Finance Ministry admit to falsifying dozens of official documents related to a 2016 shady land deal with nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen. This has prompted speculation that Abe, who was considered a shoo-in to come out victorious in the LDP race only a few months ago, now faces an increasingly uphill battle to win re-election.
As for the prime minister’s diplomatic drive, it will see him visit the U.S. for a summit meeting with Trump as early as next month to discuss North Korea. A trilateral summit with China and South Korea is also reportedly slated for May in Tokyo. There is even talk that Abe is looking to hold direct dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in pursuit of a breakthrough in the long-stalled diplomatic effort to repatriate Japanese abductees still believed to be held by the reclusive regime.
“It is possible that this approach could work, since voters, already cynical about Abe, still returned his government to power in October 2017 and no challenger has thus far assembled enough support within the party to pose a serious threat to the prime minister,” Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence, the political risk arm of the strategic consultancy firm Teneo, said in an emailed newsletter.
Abe’s best scenario for the September race is to consolidate power within three pro-Abe LDP factions, and then win support from lawmakers in other factions as well as some that are unaffiliated.
The three pro-Abe factions include those headed by close ally Taro Aso and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, whose group Abe hails from. LDP secretary-general and faction head Toshihiro Nikai has declared support for Abe, too. All combined, the number of LDP lawmakers aligned with Abe totaled 198, which represent nearly half of the party’s 405 lawmakers, as of November last year.
But whether Abe can come out of the race with flying colors remains uncertain at the moment. Yu Uchiyama, a political science professor in the University of Tokyo, said one key to Abe’s survival will depend on how the public responds to sworn testimony given Tuesday by former Finance Ministry official Nobuhisa Sagawa, who categorically denied any involvement by Abe and his allies, including finance minister Aso, in the document-tampering scandal.
“If his approval ratings have shown signs of stabilizing after Sagawa’s testimony and no smoking gun is found by prosecutors as they continue to investigate the case, then Abe could come out relatively unscathed and survive,” Uchiyama said.
The budget’s passing Wednesday is likely to provide some relief for Abe, as it essentially allows for the wrapping up of deliberations on the issue in the budget committee — a venue the opposition has relied on to grill the prime minister over the ongoing Moritomo Gakuen scandal.
Having survived tough questioning during the budget committee deliberations, Abe’s ruling coalition is now hurrying to move on and refocus its attention on passing important bills to be submitted by the government, including Abe’s labor reform bill and legislation specifying rules regarding “integrated resorts” that will feature casinos.
But the opposition remains unconvinced.
On Wednesday, six opposition parties agreed the sworn testimony by Sagawa, who refused to answer a number of key questions for fear of facing criminal prosecution, “further deepened public misgivings,” and that they will strengthen calls on additional witnesses to be summoned to the Diet, including first lady Akie Abe, who served as honorary principal of the elementary school Moritomo Gakuen was planning to build until the scandal broke.
They will also call for the resignation of Aso, who they hold responsible for appointing Sagawa, the former head of a Finance Ministry bureau that allegedly orchestrated the falsification, said Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the Diet affairs chief of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.
Sagawa “prioritized self-preservation and went out his way to protect the Prime Minister’s Office and those in power” in his testimony, Tsujimoto said with exasperation. “We will continue to pursue the truth in the Diet.”