Commentary / Japan

Time for Abe to take the offensive on scandals

by Heizo Takenaka

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is suffering from falling popular approval ratings over two scandals. Despite a lack of evidence that the prime minister or any member of his Cabinet violated any laws or went against political ethics, some members of the opposition camp and the mass media have taken up various issues and characterized them as “suspicions.” This has led people to continue to have negative impressions about the administration. Although most recent polls show that the downfall in approval ratings has finally stopped, it has dropped from over 50 percent a year ago to 38 percent as of this month (according to an NHK poll).

Opposition parties and the media constantly attack the administration in power by brandishing a claim of “suspicion” over certain problems even when decisive evidence is lacking. Where to draw a line of defense is an important decision for any administration.

This time the Abe administration seems to have done a poor job of it. Let’s imagine a situation in which somebody in government is suspected of having given favors to a particular person. In such a case, drawing a defensive line means crafting a story to use for an effective defense. Possible stories may include “I did not meet the person in the first place,” “I met the person but did not talk over anything in particular,” or “We discussed the issue but I gave no favors to the person.”

This time the administration started its defense with a total denial, claiming the prime minister had nothing at all to do with the issue in question. But gradually pieces of indirect evidence surfaced, and each time the administration changed its explanation. Then some members of the media used that to manipulate public perception of the issue — focusing their reports on useful points to attack the administration and concluding that “suspicions” have deepened.

As a result, despite the lack of decisive evidence pointing to the prime minister’s involvement in either the Moritomo Gakuen or Kake Gakuen case, discussions over the scandals have gone on for a long time and dragged down popular support for the administration.

The administration, for its part, made a mistake in its handling of attacks by the opposition and media over the “suspicions.”

There are two ways to cope with such attacks. One is to show an attitude of humbly accepting the criticism — irrespective of whether the criticism is justified. This is a defensive approach.

The other is to point out that the criticism is wrong and hit back with a counterattack. This time the administration clearly adopted the defensive approach. This resulted in an acceleration of opposition attacks, which resulted in the decline of the administration’s approval ratings. People who are unhappy with the status quo tend to find satisfaction in seeing the party in power being criticized. In this sense, some members of the opposition and mass media cleverly tapped the wave of populism.

In any case, the entire sequence of events may have established an undesirable pattern of opposition parties and the media driving the administration in power into a corner. To put a halt to such populism, Abe’s team needs to take the offensive to end the confusion in the Diet over the scandals and concentrate on economic reforms, which are the original goals of the administration.

Let me take up two points that are the target of criticism. One is that a business run by a personal friend of the prime minister happened to be chosen as the government-approved operator of a new veterinary science department (through the use of a special strategic zone scheme) as a symbolic example of regulatory reform. Criticism is being made that officials close to the prime minister gave special favors to the business — that the case was handled as the “prime minister’s matter.” Abe’s Cabinet offered detailed explanations to rebut the criticism, but the more explanations the administration gave, the more criticism the media made by finding fault with gaps in details and charging that the “suspicions” further deepened.

But in the first place, state strategic zones are a scheme to carry out deregulation under the prime minister’s leadership — deregulation that is opposed by each sector of the government bureaucracy. The situation would have been quite different if the prime minister had adopted an offensive approach from the beginning by saying: “All the issues related to special strategic zones are the prime minister’s matter. If you say that I was involved in them in order to pursue my personal interests, show me the evidence.”

The other point is the criticism that a friend of the prime minister alone was given special treatment — because the approval to open a new veterinary science department was given to only one school. The facts are as follows. In the beginning, the administration planned to give such approval to two or more schools. But it eventually had to give approval to just one because the Japan Veterinary Medical Association, a strong pressure group, approached various lawmakers to protect its vested interests.

As soon as the opposition and the media launched their criticism, the administration should have called attention to that fact and taken steps to allow several schools to open new veterinary science departments. Not a few opposition lawmakers who criticize the administration have accepted donations from the association and opposed the opening of a new veterinary science department. Unless the administration uses the criticism against those who launched it and adopts an offensive approach, the current state of confusion may drag on.

The Abe administration enjoys an extremely strong political base, holding a two-thirds majority in the Lower House and (with the help of its allies) in the Upper House. On the other hand, the opposition parties’ popular support is quite low, and there is no single group within Abe’s ruling coalition that can be a potential rival to the prime minister. The situation has long been described as Abe’s all-too dominant grip on power. That’s the reason the administration took on a humble posture and handled the scandals in a defensive manner.

Now that its approval ratings have sunk to low levels, however, the administration needs to mount an offensive. The Abe government may be on course to become a long-running administration, but what should be its legacy? To answer that question, the administration must present a major policy goal or a strategic agenda that it wants to pursue.

Heizo Takenaka, a professor emeritus at Keio University, served as economic and fiscal policy minister in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi from 2001 to 2005. He is a member of the government’s Industrial Competitiveness Council.

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