June 20, 2017 7:24 am JST

As support slips, cracks start to show in Abe's invincible armor

Public sours on Japan's ruling party amid school scandal

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling party are seeing their once firm grip on power grow tenuous as the cabinet's approval rating wilts from a swirling school scandal and a tough Tokyo assembly race looms ahead.

"My argumentative stance ultimately helped fuel debates unrelated to policy," a contrite Abe said at a news conference on Monday. "I regret this deeply."

While Abe insists that Kake Educational Institution, a school operator run by a personal friend, received no special treatment when obtaining approval for a new veterinary school, he nonetheless apologized as documents contradicting his narrative have surfaced.

"I must take to heart that the government's changing response on these documents led the public to distrust us," he said.

The prime minister's remarks reflect growing concerns within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party over the upcoming Tokyo assembly election. "I believe that the Tokyo race is the Tokyo race and that national politics are national politics," LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said Monday in an unusual attempt to downplay the race in the capital.

The LDP had initially indicated it would go all-out in Tokyo, with Abe even attending a rally back in April. But while most polls once placed the ruling party ahead of the Tomin First no Kai party led by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, the trend has turned more murky of late. As the prime minister's approval rating sinks, Nikai and others in the LDP have begun preparing for damage control in case the party loses the assembly.

National players worry that a defeat in the capital could lead to a loss in the eventual race for the Diet's lower house, as in the past. The LDP has prevailed in every national election since Abe returned as prime minister in 2012. "There's no guarantee we can win next time," a party official said.

Abe suggested Monday that he would reshuffle his cabinet and create a new cabinet post in charge of human investment. This apparent move to revive Abenomics likely constitutes an effort to soften internal criticism should the LDP lose Tokyo. Shinjiro Koizumi, son of a popular former prime minister and the proponent of an insurance program to provide free education, is said to be under consideration.

Shiny objects

Abe hopes to put a lid on the Kake scandal by refocusing energies on the economy. "We will carry out a revolution in fostering human talent," he stressed Monday.

He is considering free child care and reduced college tuition, as well as expanding programs to retrain workers for new jobs. He will set up an expert body this summer to iron out details. "We will make higher education available to all children, regardless of the financial position of their families," Abe said.

Such policies would not only bolster growth, but also help reduce inequality. They could also aid Abe in regaining support from women and independents, who grew disillusioned by the new anti-conspiracy law as well as the unfolding school scandal. Free education, if incorporated into constitutional amendments, could also pave the way for his long-cherished goal of revising the charter.

But many of these ideas had already been announced in an economic policy plan approved by the cabinet June 9. Tired slogans will do nothing to shore up support.

Abe also faces budgetary constraints. Guaranteeing free child care alone will cost an annual 1.2 trillion yen ($10.7 billion). The policy plan mentioned tax hikes, spending cuts and a new insurance scheme but offered no further details on funding.

Some worry that Abe's message is growing stale. "A handful of bureaucrats from the economy ministry are asked to offer input, but they're running out of new ideas," an official said.

Call for blood

It is also unclear whether everything will unfold as Abe envisions. Reporters asked two questions about Kake on Monday but the prime minister avoided directly mentioning the school operator.

"The Kake affair was clearly mishandled," an LDP member said, voicing frustration over Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga's dismissive comments on the issue. While Abe intends to keep Suga and Finance Minister Taro Aso in his new cabinet to ensure continuity, they may face growing pressure to step down.

Low ratings also affect Abe's timeline for the constitutional revisions he has ordered LDP officials to draft by the end of the year. "In order to have constructive discussions across the aisle, I want to prioritize substance in the LDP proposal," he said Monday in a remark that is far less bullish than his prior comments.

(Nikkei)

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