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Hit by sagging approval ratings, Abe administration scrambling to regain support


TOKYO -- The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is bent on regaining voter support after a series of opinion polls in the first half of December showed substantial drops in its approval ratings.

The ruling bloc is trying to make a turnaround well ahead of major national elections next year by focusing on economic stimulus, regional revitalization and diplomacy measures. However, apparent factors triggering plunges in the administration's popularity, such as the issue of a U.S. base relocation in the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa and the amendment of a law to allow more foreign workers into Japan, are expected to affect the political landscape for the time being.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a Dec. 17 press conference that what is important is "achieving results by approaching important issues such as economic revitalization, diplomacy and national security step by step," emphasizing the administration's intension to push up the sagging approval rate through policy measures on those issues.

The Abe administration lost support in all of the seven opinion polls conducted from Dec. 7 to 16 by major news organizations including the Mainichi Shimbun. The smallest dip from November was 2.2 percentage points marked in the combined Fuji TV and Sankei Shimbun survey conducted Dec. 8-9, and the biggest decline of 6 percentage points was revealed in the Yomiuri Shimbun poll from Dec. 14 through 16.

Some administration officials say the results were "within expectations," but more critical views also exist among government insiders.

One factor behind the declines cited by many observers is the passage on Dec. 8 by the Diet of revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act to accept more foreign workers in a bid to ease the nation's severe labor shortages. Despite the national legislature's endorsement, there still remain many important details that need to be stipulated by Cabinet and ministerial orders, and relevant data presented to the Diet by the Justice Ministry, the lead agency on the issue, had contained mistakes.

The Dec. 15-16 Mainichi poll showed that more than half of respondents held negative sentiment toward the changes to the immigration act. "The revisions were covered by the media as if they were shoddy, and it affected" the poll results, an individual close to the prime minister said.

The ruling camp's aggressive approach, including the untraditional practice of holding House of Representatives Judicial Affairs Committee meetings without the opposition camp's prior consent, seems to have played a role in making the administration less popular.

There is a reason why the Abe government didn't wait until the next ordinary session of the Diet beginning in January next year to submit the legal revisions for expanding the foreign workforce. The opposition would have opposed the move anyway, and the timing would be much closer to the nationwide local elections planned for spring next year, which could suffer the repercussions of conflict in the Diet. "We knew that and that's why we didn't want to delay the bill," said a senior politician of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Even inside the LDP, questions remain over the immigration package. At the party's Judicial Affairs Division meeting on Dec. 17, participants bombarded government officials with questions about immigration reforms, demanding an explanation as to why the administration is considering limiting the number of industry sectors allowed to accept more foreign workers to 14.

Japanese Communist Party secretariat chief Akira Koike told reporters Dec. 17 that his party intends to keep questioning the government on the issue in the upcoming ordinary session of the Diet, saying, "Support for the administration goes down when the Diet is in session."

Another issue that apparently worked against the ruling bloc was the government's decision to start landfill work for the construction of a replacement base for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Dec. 14, despite strong opposition against the move by the Okinawa Prefectural Government. A majority of respondents opposed the government action in the Mainichi poll. Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of the leading opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, accused the administration of "lacking compassion for Okinawa."

"The Abe administration has no respect at all for the rule of law or the current opinion of the people," added Fukuyama, referring to the landslide victory of Gov. Denny Tamaki, who opposes the construction of the base, in the September gubernatorial election.

(Japanese original by Yusuke Tanabe, Political News Department)

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