Can Japan's Shinzo Abe save his premiership?

Scandals have rocked the Prime Minister's time in office, but 'Abenomics' might be his salvation


Approval ratings for Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have hit an all-time low, raising questions about his mandate to lead the country.

Fewer than one in three voters support his leadership, a mere 29.9 per cent, according to a survey for Jiji news agency.

Public support for the cabinet slid nine points between June and July to 35.8 per cent, Japan Today reports. More than half of those who expressed disapproval - 51.6 per cent - said Abe could not be trusted.

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The tumbling approval ratings are further signs of an electorate rapidly losing patience with its leadership. So where did it all go wrong and can Abe rectify the situation?

Why is Abe so unpopular?

This hardly new territory for Abe, who resigned a year into his first term as prime minister in 2007 because his unpopularity made it impossible for his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to pass key anti-terror legislation.

He was voted back into office in December 2012 on the back of a "three arrows" plan for the economy: monetary easing; fiscal loosening, and deregulation.

However, the effects of "Abenomics" have been slower than expected. "Deflation is still here nearly five years on, wages gains are few and far between and hopes for a foreign direct investment bonanza aren’t panning out," says the Japan Times.

As hopes turn into disappointment, the accusations that forced Abe out of office ten years ago are resurfacing.

Chief among them are allegations of nepotism. The Kake Educational Institute, run by Kotaro Kake, a close friend of Abe, won approval to set up a veterinary medicine department earlier this year - the country's first new vet school in 52 years.

Cabinet documents apparently reminding the education ministry of the Prime Minister's "will" for the plans to go ahead undermined the government's claim that he had no involvement in the decision.

"I have never once said to anyone in government that he [Kake] is a friend so please do this," Abe told a meeting of the parliamentary judicial affairs committee.

He has also been hit by a scandal involving his wife Akie's endorsement of an ultra-nationalist school built on government land purchased at a steep discount.

In addition, he has called for a debate on rewriting the country’s pacifist constitution after the LDP and its allies won a super-majority in elections to Japan's upper house.

Under Abe's "autocratic" reign, "controversial legislation has been repeatedly forced through parliament and into law", says Chinese news service Xinhua, and voters fear he may continue to push his own agenda at the expense of his promise to fix the economy.

Abe's obsession with revising the constitution is his "prime motive to stay in power", Professor Koichi Nakano of Sophia University, Tokyo, told Reuters, adding: "But once his popularity really starts to fall, that becomes very difficult to do."

Can Abe's government survive?

The problem for Japanese voters is that there are few alternatives to Abe.

Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, Japan's most popular political figure, is the most obvious successor. A tough-talking reformist with a fondness for Margaret Thatcher, she has been tipped as a potential prime minister for years, says the Financial Times.

Koike's personal brand is powerful. Earlier this year, she followed in the footsteps of Emmanuel Macron of France by quitting the LDP to lead new group Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First). A month later, the party won 49 out of the 50 seats it contested to become the largest in the Tokyo assembly.

Koike clearly has her eyes on Abe's job - she ran for LDP leadership in 2008 - but political analysts wonder if, by aligning herself with a regional movement, she has walled off her own success on the national level, Japan Times reports.

Tomin First no Kai has also done little to improve her reputation as an outsider, putting her at the back of the long queue of LDP luminaries lining up for their turn in the top job.

The wider issue with Japan’s political landscape is the lack of a credible alternative to the ruling party. Between 1955 and 2017, the LDP has only been out of office twice - once in the mid-1990s and again between 2009 and 2012

That doesn’t look likely to change any time soon. Its support is at 31.9 per cent, according to the Kyodo News poll, while the Democratic Party - the so-called opposition - boasts a mere 8.2 per cent.

With a majority of more than 200 seats than its rival, the LDP has become complacent and in turn, it appears, voters have become apathetic.

Abe has a little more than a year to turn things around before the next general election. There's one way to do it, whether he likes it or not, says the Financial Times: "Japan needs Abenomics, with or without the man".

Even if its benefits haven't been felt yet, it adds, the policy is, at its core, a solid economic philosophy.

While legislative amendments and constitutional meddling "matter greatly to him, they mean little to the average voter", continues the FT, calling on Abe to recalibrate his focus on the economy instead of repeating the mistake which cut his first term short.

It concludes that if the Prime Minister is to stay in office long enough to make his economic reforms felt, he "must recognise that his legacy does not depend on a minor constitutional reform.

"It will rest, instead, on whether he was the man who ended two decades of deflation."

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