Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

Beleaguered Abe on the ropes as support weakens

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

The public has seen the true face of Shinzo Abe and doesn’t like what it sees. The prime minister’s public support in July imploded across the board, with even the pro-Abe Sankei Shimbun recording a 13 percent drop from June to July to 34.7 percent. In the mid-July Kyodo poll, Abe’s support plunged to 35.8 percent, with 78 percent disbelieving his denials about cronyism and only 15.4 percent expressing satisfaction with his explanations.

And that’s the good news. In two other polls, Abe has entered the “dead zone” of below 30 percent, with the Jiji Press pegging his support rate at 29.9 percent, while he plummeted to 26 percent according to the Mainichi. Among postwar prime ministers, only Keizo Obuchi was able to rebound from the dead zone, but unlike Abe, Obuchi had the advantage of not being a polarizing figure.

It may get worse for Abe. He undermined his own sagging credibility with botched testimony in the Diet on July 24 that was designed to turn the page on the apparent impropriety of his friend Kotaro Kake in getting permission to open up a veterinary school, the first in 52 years. Diet testimony and documents from the education ministry suggest that Abe’s name and wishes were invoked to grease the wheels for Kake’s application. It is also alleged that the criteria were adjusted to eliminate a rival bid by Kyoto Sangyo University.

In the face of mounting allegations of unethical behavior, many of the prime minister’s aides suddenly became forgetful about what they said and whom they met. Others flat out denied representations of what they said even when confronted with meticulous notes of their meetings.

So someone is lying and it appears that relatively few believe the denials. And why should the public believe Team Abe, which has the most to lose, over bureaucrats who don’t have a stake in the outcome? Essentially, why would various officials in different meetings all falsify notes of meetings with representatives of the prime minister?

The Tokyo assembly elections, a bloodbath for Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, were a referendum on the PM and an endorsement of Yuriko Koike’s record as governor. She has championed transparency and accountability regarding the 2020 Olympics and the relocation of the Tsukiji fish market. Abe increasingly looks like he’s on the wrong side of the transparency and accountability issues — ones that the public has warmed up to the more they come to understand the shenanigans of the LDP old guard.

Of course, the revelations are not shocking to any sentient voter because the LDP has long been seen as the champion of vested interests, putting the fix in to enrich the well-connected while swindling taxpayers. But Koike has been adept at tapping into these resentments and giving voice to a public unhappy with Abe’s agenda and his cronyism. Weaning Komeito from supporting the LDP in Tokyo was a major coup for her and shows just how vulnerable the national ruling coalition may be.

So, under fire and with public support plunging, Abe in crisis control mode agreed to testify over two days of ad hoc Diet sessions on July 24 and 25. These were carefully scripted appearances with ground rules designed to make it hard for Abe to blow it. But blow it he did, in spectacular fashion — so much so in his first appearance that in his second he had to apologize for his testimony the previous day. That is because he implausibly asserted that the first he knew of the special exemption accorded to his friend was on Jan. 20 of this year.

Really? According to the prime minister’s published schedule, he met with Kake 15 times from the end of 2012 through December 2016. Abe acknowledged that it must be hard for the public to believe his version that nothing untoward happened in these frequent meetings, and he was certainly right on that score. The national media pilloried him and so his second day of testimony of flip-flopping on “when he knew what” did little to dispel perceptions that the nation’s leader was dissembling. Abe gave the scandal legs.

In need of a media distraction and not wanting to wait until the Aug. 3 Cabinet reshuffle, a desperate Abe threw Tomomi Inada, his similarly beleaguered defense minister, under the bus. She was his protege, so her overdue ouster only reminded people of Abe’s penchant for taking care of his friends, at least until political expediency demands they be jettisoned. She fell due to her demonstrated incompetence and revelations in official documents that suggest she may have been complicit in the cover-up of logs from the Japanese peacekeeping operation in South Sudan.

Abe’s Cabinet reshuffle saw his approval rebound to 44.4 percent in a Kyodo poll, but to only 35 percent in a poll compiled by the Mainichi. His scandals and poor judgment could still haunt him and only a third support his agenda of revising the Constitution. Former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda also slammed Abe, declaring him incompetent. An international crisis involving China and/or North Korea might help, but most of all Abe is relying on the short attention span of voters who will soon be off for holidays.

Can the summer recess save Abe? Probably not, but he can rely on the inept opposition. What was Democratic Party leader Renho thinking when she decided to abruptly resign on July 27? President Donald Trump’s White House follies are like watching an octopus put on its socks, but Japan’s dysfunctional opposition is not much better. Couldn’t Renho have waited a couple of weeks? Given that Abe is on the ropes due to his bungled testimony and the media was pummeling him, why provide a distraction at exactly the wrong moment? It doesn’t get dumber than that.

Renho was not a plus for the DP, even if her prosecutorial sallies were entertaining. Overshadowing her nationality issue was her personality problem — too pugnacious — so the public did not warm to her. Essentially, her departure will not appreciably add to the disarray that besets a zombie party, but is a welcome diversion for Abe from his self-inflicted wounds.

Nonetheless, his political troubles coupled with the departure of these two prominent female politicians to take responsibility for their shortcomings and scandals have raised questions about the prime minister’s future.

Given opposition disarray, there was speculation that Abe might call snap elections to renew his mandate. But after the Tokyo drubbing and the post-reshuffle bounce in the polls, this looks unlikely.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.