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Jul 24, 2017 | 19:37 GMT

3 mins read

Japan: Prime Minister Addresses Scandals as Approval Ratings Plummet

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is embroiled in scandal. The leader faces allegations that he exercised undue influence by pushing the Education Ministry to approve a veterinary school and that his defense minister concealed logbooks related to Japan's peacekeeping mission in South Sudan to mask security conditions. Abe spoke in front of an ad hoc lower house budget committee session July 24 to address the controversies. The meetings will continue for a second day July 25. In the school scandal, the prime minister denied allegations that he had foreknowledge of the veterinary school's application, and an aide said that his only involvement was to urge progress on deregulation of school authorization. Abe also accepted criticisms of Defense Minister Tomomi Inada for her involvement in the South Sudan affair. Still, overcoming the accusations will be no small feat for the prime minister.

Abe is losing support among the Japanese public. A Mainichi Shimbun poll conducted July 22-23 pegged his approval rating at 26 percent, 10 points down from where it stood in late June; 56 percent of respondents said they do not back his government. (The Nikkei and Fuji news networks put Abe's approval rating slightly higher, at 39 percent and 35 percent, respectively.) Less than a month earlier, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost numerous seats in the landmark Tokyo municipal elections July 2. Voters dealt the LDP another blow July 23, when an opposition-backed candidate won the mayoral election in Sendai.

Abe's current low approval ratings pose questions about the viability of his constitutional agenda. Though the Japanese legislature's most recent session ended well for Abe, he expended a great deal of political capital ramming through legislation. Even so, the prime minister still has tools at his disposal to help manage the crisis. The LDP's recent losses have not yielded corresponding gains for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. The opposition party also suffered in the Tokyo municipal vote and is likely to replace its secretary general as a result.

To deflect some of the criticism from the current scandals, Abe is expected to restructure his Cabinet on Aug. 3 to shed unpopular ministers and change out LDP officials. He will likely replace the defense minister — perhaps sooner than Aug. 3 — and possibly the justice minister. During the Cabinet overhaul, it will be critical to watch whether Abe appoints individuals with whom he has personal ties or whether he moves to appoint candidates with ties to key factions in the ruling party. The LDP factions have lost some of their clout in recent years and appear to be neither willing nor able to line up against Abe, though they traditionally have been kingmakers in the party. Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida, leader of the Kochi Kai faction, seemed at first to be on the chopping block ahead of the Cabinet reorganization. Kishida, considered a likely successor to Abe, reportedly met with the prime minister in private during the week of July 17. Speculation has since swirled that he will leave the Cabinet for a more senior post, opting to position himself alongside Abe instead of in opposition to him. 

As the Cabinet reorganization approaches, Abe will work to reinvent himself and emerge from the scandals that have been plaguing him. And the stakes will be high for the prime minister, considering the special legislative session that may take place in September, his ambitious goal to push constitutional amendments through this year and the chance that elections could be held at any time.

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