Although the current ordinary Diet session wraps up Wednesday, just as the ruling party coalition desires, do not expect headaches for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to disappear anytime soon.
At the beginning of the year, the 150-day session was supposed to be relatively smooth sailing for him. With the Tokyo gubernatorial election and the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics slated for the summer, he would have wanted to keep confrontation to as little as possible and focus on advancing his domestic agenda, including his long-held ambition of amending the Constitution.
But then the novel coronavirus came, knocking down his political schedule and plans in one fell swoop. The public was irked by the government’s sluggish and ineffective response in the early stages of the outbreak, which helped push his approval rating downward. In one poll, his rating fell into the upper 20s, an alarming range, following the ruckus over the prosecutor retirement extension bill and the resignation of the top Tokyo prosecutor, who was seen as having been close to the Prime Minister’s Office.
The response to the once-in-a-century global pandemic overwhelmed the Diet, but even though it has quieted down, at least for now, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister remains embroiled in deep political trouble. Uncertainty persists over whether he can bounce back fully from his slipping support, and failure to do so could disrupt his ability to call a snap Lower House election and advance constitutional amendment.
“It’s quite hard to regain authority once it drops to a certain point,” said Jun Iio, a professor of Japanese politics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
Before the coronavirus dominated the news cycle, Abe was in the hot seat for alleged cronyism involving a taxpayer-funded cherry blossom-viewing party. Despite demands by the opposition parties that the list of attendees be revealed, which they hoped would show Abe giving his supporters special treatment, the administration adamantly refused to do so.
According to a poll by the public broadcaster NHK, his approval rating was 45 percent in February, even though 73 percent of poll respondents were dissatisfied with the government’s explanation regarding the cherry blossom party.
Then around early February, the novel coronavirus made a fierce advance into Japan, starting off with the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Yokohama. Health authorities scrambled to implement a quarantine, and more than 7,000 passengers and crew members were not permitted to disembark immediately, resulting in the rapid spread of infections on the ship, with the public at home and abroad criticizing the government’s handling of the situation.
The situation in the country became progressively worse. Before completely shutting down all travel from China in April, Japan did not impose a sweeping entry ban except for two provinces declared to be virus hot spots. Public discontent with the government subsequently intensified over a program that distributed cloth masks to households, a slow-moving ¥100,000 cash handout and a reluctance to offer full compensation for temporary business closures during a nationwide state of emergency.
In addition, the administration suffered a blow, at least temporarily, over a series of controversies related to a public prosecutor retirement bill, which was seen by critics as a cunning legal loophole to appoint Hiromu Kurokawa, then the head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office, to prosecutor-general.
Kurokawa, with whom the Abe administration had good rapport, resigned from his role following a report that he had played mahjong while betting money with newspaper reporters during the state of emergency.
An NHK poll from May showed Abe’s approval rating dropped to 37 percent. His disapproval rating went up to 45 percent, a 7 point jump from April.
The number was more alarming in a separate poll conducted by the left-leaning Mainichi Shimbun on May 23, which showed his approval rating plummeting to 27 percent, a 13 point drop from earlier that month. The disapproval rate leaped to 64 percent.
The opposition parties persistently pressed the government, rebuking it for everything from the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantine procedure to stubbornly low testing numbers. Still, they were cooperative in passing legislation necessary to declare the state of emergency and supplementary budgets, believing that opposing these plans could backfire on them in an election.
The opposition parties had requested the ruling coalition extend the Diet session, so they could continue going after the administration over its response to the coronavirus, with the demand rejected to avoid that very outcome.
Citing Abe’s signature decision-making style, which relies on a few close advisers within his inner circle at the Prime Minister’s Office, Iio said that oversight was lax and the administration was prone to making mistakes. Its approach in responding to the coronavirus, however, may be the most consequential for Abe’s Cabinet.
“The administration had been seen as slovenly but had a capability (to govern),” he said, referring to its responses to the cherry blossom party and the prosecutor bill. “However, (the coronavirus response) showed perhaps it may not have the capability. This difference is a little bit more significant compared with other times.”
The public is frustrated with the government response given the LDP-Komeito coalition has an absolute majority in the Lower House, said former Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe, who was also the health minister when a novel influenza struck Japan in 2009 and is a critic of the administration’s coronavirus response.
The political environment was significantly different when he was the health minister, Masuzoe said in an interview. When he dealt with the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in early 2009, the then-opposition party Democratic Party of Japan controlled the Upper House while the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition had a majority in the Lower House.
Anticipating that the ruling coalition could lose power at any moment, Masuzoe assessed that a feeling of tension was shared by politicians and bureaucrats alike. The latter were afraid that if they were seen to be closely cooperating with the administration, they might be stripped of their ability to do their job under a new government led by the DPJ, which won a Lower House election by a landslide later that year.
Realizing that Japan was ill-equipped to manage the infectious disease, he recalled that he had pushed to expand virus testing capabilities and increase the number of public health centers where tests are conducted. Those efforts, he said, yielded some progress under the DPJ but were eventually pushed aside later on. The LDP recaptured the Lower House in 2012.
“Right now, Mr. Abe is the longest-serving prime minister and the opposition parties are fragmented. No one thinks they’d be in power,” Masuzoe said. “Under such circumstances, I believe that complacency has emerged on the government end … which is leading to a delay in all (coronavirus) measures.”
From now on, Abe will likely focus on two matters considered to be his stronghold to boost his position: the economy and diplomacy.
Through the fiscal 2020 and two supplementary budgets, Abe has repeatedly emphasized his eagerness to reinvigorate the economy. The prime minister has also expressed his interest in taking the lead in “building a new world order” by cooperating with countries sharing common values while treading a fine line between China and the United States, two superpowers with rocky relations.
But Abe has even fewer options when it comes to advancing one of the most important parts of his domestic agenda. The coronavirus response has impeded his long-held goal of amending the pacifist Constitution, as the ruling coalition has decided not to submit an amendment to the constitutional referendum law for six consecutive Diet sessions. With his tenure as the LDP leader up in September next year, the party will have to change its guidelines to grant him a fourth term if revision is to happen on his watch.
The prime minister is also constrained in his ability to exercise his best trump card: a Lower House snap election. At the beginning of this year, he was in a better position to dissolve the Diet with a view to firming up his political power and solidifying his legacy. But he could face an enormous backlash for doing so while the country is still reeling from the severe economic damage unleashed by the coronavirus.
It is up to Abe himself, not his close aides, whether he can regain his strength, Iio said, adding he should focus on suppressing a second or a third coronavirus wave by consulting with people beyond his allies.
“Mr. Abe recovered after going through a bitter experience during his first term and changed himself, which made the first part of his second term go well,” he said, referring to his first tenure as prime minister between 2006 and 2007.
Abe’s first Cabinet back in the late 2000s collapsed quickly after a series of scandals and gaffes by ministers known to possess a similar political philosophy to Abe. He revised course during his second stint as prime minister, appointing heavyweights such as Yoshihide Suga and Taro Aso to critical Cabinet posts.
Critics, though, have poured scorn on Abe for his alleged overdependence on his close Cabinet aides, most notably special adviser Takaya Imai. Ignoring advice from heavyweights — in contrast to Imai, who was a bureaucrat from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry — might have cost the administration in responding to the coronavirus.
“Changing a leader in the middle of a crisis won’t help. Therefore, it’s Mr. Abe himself who is standing the closest (to achieving his goal). Instead of making decisions within his close inner circle, he’d make progress if he did that in a much bigger arena.”
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