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Poll shows public fed up with Abe administration but viable alternatives lacking

Finance Minister Taro Aso holds copies of a weekly magazine article reporting sexual harassment allegations against Finance Vice Minister Junichi Fukuda, at the Diet building on April 18, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The outcome of an opinion survey the Mainichi Shimbun conducted over the weekend reflects the majority view among the public that while being dissatisfied with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, voters cannot find a powerful rival who can replace him.

Ruling coalition legislators have shown mixed reactions to the outcome of the poll. While some are filled with a sense of relief, believing that the Cabinet approval rating, which stood at 30 percent, stopped short of falling to an alarming level, others fear that the figure will continue to decline.

Since the Abe government is likely to have few opportunities to make significant achievements and regain public support, the prime minister will struggle to manage his administration.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga appreciated policy coordination between Prime Minister Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump during the summit, which he believes pressured North Korea into declaring the country's abandonment of nuclear tests and the firing of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

"North Korea made such an announcement as Prime Minister Abe and President Trump carefully coordinated their policies," Suga said during the filming of a BS11 TV program on April 22.

The government has hoped that Abe, who has friendly relations with Trump, will score big points in diplomacy at a time when the government has been hit by favoritism scandals involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution, among other problems. Therefore, some within the Abe administration have been relieved at the outcome of the latest Mainichi survey. "The approval rating hasn't declined as steeply as we had feared. I wonder what would've happened without the Japan-U.S. summit," one source close to the government said.

However, Administrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda's announcement of his intention to step down over sexual harassment allegations against him, which coincided with the Japan-U.S. summit, drew more public attention.

Important diplomatic events, including inter-Korea and Japan-China-South Korea summit meetings, will be held in the near future.

However, a source within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is pessimistic that Abe's diplomatic achievements will help his government regain public support. "Such accomplishments wouldn't lead to an advantage. Since the public is tired of the administration, there are no factors that could raise public support for it," the source said.

The decision on whether to oust Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, who had initially failed to dismiss Fukuda and added fuel to public criticism of the Finance Ministry, is a big headache for the prime minister.

Over half of respondents to the Mainichi poll -- 51 percent -- said Aso should step down.

Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, said that "the public appears to have the impression that the government is falling one step behind" in responding to the series of scandals.

Observations are prevailing within the LDP that Aso may resign when the Finance Ministry shortly announces the outcome of its in-house probe into the doctoring of documents relating to the heavily discounted sale of a state-owned land lot in Osaka Prefecture to Moritomo Gakuen, which had ties with Abe's wife Akie.

However, opposition parties would then hold the prime minister politically responsible over the series of scandals involving the ministry if he is to allow Aso to step down.

Moreover, a Cabinet Office email sent on April 2, 2015, stating that Tadao Yanase, a then executive secretary to Prime Minister Abe, would meet Kake Educational Institution and Ehime prefectural officials, among others, to discuss Kake establishing a veterinary school in Ehime Prefecture, has turned up at the education ministry. Another document compiled by the Ehime Prefectural Government quotes Yanase as telling its officials in April 2015 that the Kake institution's veterinary school plan was "a matter concerning the prime minister."

A source close to the prime minister's office expressed fears that the government's responses to the Kake favoritism scandal could deal an extremely serious blow to the Abe administration. "The government obviously made a mistake in responding to the Fukuda case. If the government handles the matter relating to Yanase in an inappropriate manner, the administration could face an extremely difficult situation," the source said.

The latest poll shows that the approval rating for the Cabinet -- 30 percent -- is slightly above that for the LDP, at 29 percent. However, if the rates reverse, then it will cause problems within the party and cast a shadow over Abe's aim to win a third term as LDP leader in a party presidential race slated for September.

LDP legislators who are widely viewed as hopeful candidates to succeed Abe as party president and prime minister are closely looking at the future of the Abe administration.

"The public is critical of the current situation. The executive branch and the governing bloc must take the situation seriously and closely cooperate in regaining public trust," said Fumio Kishida, head of the LDP's Policy Research Council.

"The party should seriously consider why the government is being criticized. I'll say what I need to say to the administration," said former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba.

Six opposition parties, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), are demanding that Aso step down and have refused to attend Diet deliberations since April 20 because their demand has not been met.

If the situation in the Diet continues, it will adversely affect deliberations on key bills, including one aimed at reforming the way people work. Therefore, the governing bloc has threatened to go ahead with deliberations this week even without opposition parties attending the session.

To make sure that the bill becomes law by the June 20 end of the current Diet session, the ruling parties cannot further compromise with opposition parties.

The six opposition parties reacted sharply to the move saying, "It's the executive branch and ruling bloc's responsibility to normalize the Diet session."

They intend not to return to Diet deliberations for now and instead are poised to hold joint hearings of the sexual harassment allegations and other issues outside the legislature.

Kiyomi Tsujimoto, head of the CDP's Diet Affairs Committee, described the current situation of public support for the Abe Cabinet as just "one step short of an alarming level," and said, "The public's distrust in the Abe administration is developing into disdain."

In apparent response to the ruling coalition's criticism that the opposition camp's tactic of refusing to attend Diet deliberations is meant to sacrifice policy measures, Akira Koike, head of the secretariat of the Japanese Communist Party, said, "It's necessary to settle problems before launching full-scale policy debate."

The governing bloc last week proposed to convene meetings of the budget committees of both chambers of the Diet to summon Yanase to testify as an unsworn witness over the Kake scandal. However, opposition parties that are demanding that Yanase provide testimony under oath rejected the proposal.

Attention is now focused on whether the governing coalition will further compromise with opposition parties.

The opinion poll shows that the approval rating for the CDP, the largest opposition bloc in the lower chamber, remains the same at 13 percent as that in the previous poll in March, showing that opposition parties have not garnered more public support even though the administration has been hit hard by the series of scandals.

Therefore, the opposition parties cannot simply go on the offensive against the Abe government.

"If Mr. Aso is to continue refusing to take responsibility, then we should consider how to return to Diet deliberations," said Kohei Otsuka, leader of the opposition Democratic Party.

(Japanese original by Noriaki Kinoshita, Katsuya Takahashi, Akira Murao and Shuhei Endo, Political News Department)

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