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Plunge in Cabinet support rate shocks ruling parties

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, is seen during a House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting on June 16, 2017. To the left is Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. (Mainichi)

Ruling party officials were alarmed by sharp falls in the approval rating for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet in weekend opinion polls by media organizations, the results of which were apparently affected by the steamrolling of the so-called "anti-conspiracy" legislation in the Diet and the favoritism scandal involving a school operator run by Abe's confidant.

In a nationwide opinion poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun on June 17 and 18, the approval rate for the Abe Cabinet plunged 10 points from a previous survey in May to 36 percent, with the disapproval rate -- at 44 percent -- overtaking the support rate for the first time since October 2015.

"These are fairly severe figures. We must humbly accept them," said Hakubun Shimomura, executive acting secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), on June 18. As the head of the LDP's Tokyo chapter, he added, "We must make the utmost effort to avoid any impact on the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election" -- whose official campaigning period is set to start on June 23 for July 2 voting.

The opinion survey results apparently reflect public anger and criticism over the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito ramming the anti-conspiracy legislation through the Diet toward the end of the session after bypassing House of Councillors committee voting, as well as public frustration over the Abe administration's desperate attempt to quickly draw the curtain on the Kake Educational Institution scandal, in which Abe's favoritism over a plan for the group to open a veterinary school in a national strategic special economic zone has come under suspicion.

In the Mainichi opinion poll, 69 percent of respondents said Diet deliberations were not enough for the anti-conspiracy legislation to revise the Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds, which would criminalize preparation for terrorism and other crimes by changing the conditions that constitute conspiracy. In what was widely denounced as a "surprise move," the ruling coalition invoked an "interim report" to skip a vote on the controversial bill in the upper house Committee on Judicial Affairs before the chamber's full house voting, in a bid to avoid causing a scene during committee voting with the upcoming Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race in mind. Faced with the disastrous opinion poll results, however, a senior Komeito official lamented, "The interim report apparently backfired."

In 2015, the disapproval rate for the Abe Cabinet overtook the support rate by up to 17 points in an August survey conducted during Diet deliberations on the controversial security legislation. However, the approval rate picked up after the bill was passed into law.

In the latest opinion poll, however, the Cabinet disapproval rate -- which saw a 9-point increase from the May survey to 44 percent -- was not just affected by the anti-conspiracy law but also by the public backlash over the Abe government's reluctance to sincerely probe into whether Abe's "will" affected the Kake institution's vet school project. A source close to the government sarcastically told the Mainichi, "It's amazing that the Cabinet got off with a mere 10 point (support rate) fall."

On June 18, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda, whose name surfaced in the Kake scandal in a fresh survey conducted by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology over its in-house documents, expressed his frustrations during a street speech in Tokyo, saying, "They are picking on me as they believe having me suffer as an executive of the LDP's Tokyo chapter ahead of the Tokyo assembly election could also damage the LDP."

Kazunori Yamanoi, Diet affairs chief of the largest opposition Democratic Party, offered his view on the opinion poll results, saying, "The results probably indicate the mounting sense of distrust among the public toward the prime minister, who was running about (from the Kake scandal), and their growing suspicions that he may be lying."

Although the Diet session drew to a close on June 18, opposition parties are poised to demand the ruling coalition hold budget committee sessions in both chambers of the Diet in order to get to the bottom of the Kake scandal. "The situation has dramatically changed," Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii told reporters. "We would like to start by ousting the ruling parties in the Tokyo assembly election."

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