For the first time since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in late September, more Japanese disapprove of his administration than approve of it. Although Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party emerged victorious in the Aichi gubernatorial election Sunday, he will continue to experience difficulties because doubts on his leadership ability are fueling the public’s growing disapproval.
At the same time, the opposition has failed to benefit from Mr. Abe’s falling popularity. The support rate for the Democratic Party of Japan, the No. 1 opposition party, has not changed, while the percentage of people who do not support any party has increased. Political parties must seriously reflect upon why the public’s distrust in them is growing.
According to a poll conducted by Kyodo News on Feb. 3 and 4, the approval rating of the Abe administration fell by 4.7 points from the previous poll on Jan. 12 and 13 to 40.3 percent — a drop of roughly 25 points from ratings garnered just after the administration’s inauguration. In contrast, the disapproval rate increased by 5.2 points to 44.1 percent. The support rate for the LDP was 35.1 percent, down from 41.9 percent, while the support rate for the DPJ remained at 15.4 percent. The percentage of nonpartisan voters increased by 9.5 points to 39.8 percent.
The Abe Cabinet suffered a setback in December when administrative and regulatory reforms minister Genichiro Sata resigned in disgrace over irregularities in his support group’s political funds reports. Problems have been found in the political funds reports of several other Cabinet ministers. The latest blow to Mr. Abe was health minister Hakuo Yanagisawa’s gaffe on Jan. 27 in which he referred to women as “child-bearing machines.” Mr. Yanagisawa not only has provided the opposition camp with political fodder, but has also made the public doubt his integrity as a politician and Cabinet minister. In addition the incident has raised questions concerning Mr. Abe’s ability to discern the aptitude of his Cabinet members or to control them. Although Mr. Abe sternly warned Mr. Yanagisawa over his speech, he has made it clear he will keep him in his Cabinet.
An unexpected statement from Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma also caused a stir. On Jan. 24 he described as a mistake U.S President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq based on the false assumption that weapons of mass destruction existed. Three days later he made a statement that deviated from the government’s position on a plan to move the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Island.
In the Kyodo News poll, nearly three-quarters (74.7 percent) of those surveyed said that Mr. Abe was improperly handling the cases of Mr. Yanagisawa and Mr. Kyuma. Asked whether Mr. Yanagisawa should resign as health minister, 58.7 percent said yes. Interestingly, more men called for his resignation than women — 61.4 percent versus 55.9 percent. Of the people who said that they did not support Mr. Abe’s administration, the largest number, 30.4 percent, said the prime minister lacked leadership ability.
Women have constituted a strong base of support for Mr. Abe since he was elected prime minister, but the latest poll shows that for the first time more women disapprove of his administration than support it — 41.5 percent versus 39 percent. Among men, the disapproval rating had already topped the approval rating in January’s poll.
Criticism of Mr. Yanagisawa’s gaffe and Mr. Abe’s handling of it apparently influenced voter behavior in the Aichi gubernatorial and Kitakyushu mayoral elections held Sunday. In Aichi, it was forecast that incumbent Gov. Masaaki Kanda, supported by the ruling coalition of the LDP and Komeito, would easily win. But the race was tight. While Mr. Kanda garnered 1.42 million votes, Mr. Yoshihiro Ishida, a former Inuyama mayor supported by the DPJ, the Social Democratic Party and the People’s New Party received 1.35 million votes. In Kitakyushu, Mr. Kenji Kitahashi, a former DPJ Lower House member, trounced a candidate supported by the ruling coalition. Conspicuously, the voter turnout was high in both elections — 52.11 percent in Aichi (13.2 points higher than in the previous election) and 56.57 percent in Kitakyusu (18.25 points higher).
But the opposition camp should realize that just calling for Mr. Yanagisawa’s resignation won’t do them any good. The people will simply regard such behavior as political opportunism. The Kyodo News poll shows that 65.8 percent of those surveyed do not trust politics. The best way to regain the people’s trust in politics would be for the opposition parties to engage the ruling camp in constructive policy discussions.
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