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Record low Cabinet approval rating deals blow to Abe administration

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe listens to questions about logs describing Ground Self-Defense Force U.N. peacekeeping operations in South Sudan that have put Defense Minister Tomomi Inada in the spotlight, during a House of Representatives budget committee meeting on July 24, 2017. (Mainichi)

The sagging approval rating of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet shows no signs of recovery, plunging to a new low of 26 percent since Abe returned to power in 2012 in a July 22-23 Mainichi Shimbun poll and leading some in the ruling coalition to be pessimistic about the rating ever picking up.

While Prime Minister Abe aims to make a breakthrough with the upcoming reshuffle of the Cabinet and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s executives on Aug. 3, the general public apparently does not appreciate his plan to keep the current framework of his administration. "We have no choice but to persevere through the adversity," lamented one ruling coalition official.

It is a time-tested trend that a Cabinet finds it difficult to recover its momentum after its approval rating falls to the 20 percent range. While the first Abe Cabinet (2006-2007) saw its support rating slightly recover following a reshuffle, the Cabinet ended up resigning en masse before long. From 2008, then Prime Minister Taro Aso barely maintained his administration amid significantly low approval ratings by repeatedly putting off a decision to dissolve the House of Representatives, but he was eventually forced to dissolve the lower house for a snap general election in 2009 -- where the LDP suffered a crushing defeat to fall into the opposition. The recent record-low approval rating for the second Abe Cabinet, therefore, has sent shockwaves through the current administration.

Until recently, the Abe Cabinet had been enjoying high support ratings since Abe returned to power in late 2012, scoring victories in national elections and keeping its centripetal force intact. The latest support rate plunge to a critical level, however, has cast uncertainty over the future of the Abe administration.

On July 23, Prime Minister Abe reiterated his enthusiasm toward constitutional amendment during a speech in Yokohama. If Abe is to keep attaching priority on constitutional reform, however, it would be difficult for him to go ahead with a lower house dissolution for a snap general election, which may end up depriving the pro-amendment forces of the two-thirds majority in the lower chamber -- a necessary prerequisite for initiating constitutional revision.

While Abe intends to have the LDP submit its proposals for constitutional revision to an extraordinary Diet session to be convened this coming fall, with the goal of adding a new clause providing for the Self-Defense Forces under war-renouncing Article 9 of the supreme law, a senior official of the LDP's Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution voiced skepticism over Abe's plan, saying, "There would be a growing backlash within the LDP and (its coalition partner) Komeito. The schedule (for constitutional amendment) would change." Headquarters chief Okiharu Yasuoka said, "The government wouldn't be viable without public confidence. It is essential to have thorough discussions."

The faltering of the Abe administration has also impacted major local elections, with a candidate backed by the ruling coalition losing to an opposition-backed former lawmaker in the Sendai Mayoral Election on July 23 -- just three weeks after the LDP's historic defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. An LDP lawmaker noted, "There is growing public criticism against the prime minister. No one would listen to us even if we try to appeal to voters for support of our economic stimulus measures." Komeito campaign strategist Tetsuo Saito commented, "There was criticism against the national government. We would like to make sure that we will manage the government in a yet more humble manner."

The moves of post-Abe hopefuls within the LDP are also attracting attention. One of them, former LDP secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba, said on July 23, "The Cabinet should focus on doing whatever it should do properly regardless of the low approval rating. That being said, Cabinet members should avoid aiming only at keeping the administration afloat. They should make clear what they want to do and provide a thorough explanation to the public."

Hiroshi Ogushi, policy chief of the opposition Democratic Party, said, "The public backlash against the administration's arrogance remains strong." He suggested his eagerness to grill Prime Minister Abe over the favoritism scandal involving the Kake Educational Institution headed by Abe's close friend and other issues during the out-of-session budget committee meetings of both chambers of the Diet on July 24 and 25. Opposition parties are poised to demand that more Diet meetings be held and that other parties concerned be also summoned to the Diet as sworn witnesses. Akira Koike, head of the Japanese Communist Party's secretariat, said, "There are growing adverse reactions toward the Abe administration's high-handed political stance and policy measures. It's about time to dissolve the lower chamber for a snap general election."

Meanwhile, the majority of respondents to the latest Mainichi poll do not support Prime Minister Abe's decision to retain Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle, with 52 percent against the decision and 30 percent in favor.

Abe also intends to retain LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and other core officials of the party, in an apparent attempt to keep a stable administration by maintaining its current framework. Depending on how far the Aug. 3 reshuffle of Cabinet ministers and LDP executives goes, the effect of the personnel change in propping up the Abe administration may be limited.

Suga fueled a public backlash against the government's handling of the Kake vet school scandal after calling education ministry documents linked to the matter "anonymous objectionable documents." Among non-supporters of the Abe Cabinet, 72 percent of respondents said they do not agree with retaining Aso and Suga in their respective positions. A mid-ranking LDP lawmaker pointed out, "It is necessary to replace Suga and others and appoint those who keep a distance from the prime minister to key positions, such as former secretary-general Ishiba and former party General Council chief Seiko Noda, in order to forge party unity."

The survey also found that 18 percent of pollees are "greatly interested in" the Cabinet and LDP executive reshuffle, while 42 percent answered that they are "somewhat" interested in the matter. Twenty-one percent said they do not have much interest, while 9 percent said they are not interested in it at all. Overall, interest in the Cabinet and LDP personnel change is high both among Cabinet supporters and non-supporters.

With regard to the so-called "anti-conspiracy" law, which came into effect earlier this month, 51 percent of respondents said they have anxiety about the government's application of the law, while 22 percent said they don't. Nineteen percent said they were not sure. The poll results apparently reflect the high-handed manner of the ruling coalition ramming the legislation through the Diet. The law revised the Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds, to criminalize "acts of preparations to commit crimes such as terrorism" by changing the conditions that constitute conspiracy.

Despite the sharp fall in the Cabinet support rating, however, there is no powerful alternative to replace the Abe administration. The main opposition Democratic Party's approval rating further declined to 5 percent in the latest Mainichi survey, down 3 points from a previous poll in June. Even Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First association), the regional party that scored a landslide victory in the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, does not appear to be a possible alternative to the ruling coalition, with 48 percent of pollees saying they do not expect the party to field candidates in the next lower house election, well over the 36 percent who said they do.

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