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Abe faces political storm as scandals hit Japan

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Abe faces political storm as scandals hit Japan

The news of his tenure ending soon is gaining credence, writes Rajaram Panda

In a swift turn of political fortune, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finds himself in a shaky foundation from what looked invincible a couple of months ago. Political volatility in a democracy is nothing new but it goes to Abe’s credit that he has provided a long spell of political stability since coming to power in 2012 after a long spell of political instability when Japan saw many Prime Ministers come and go, giving credence to the popular usage of Japan having ‘revolving PMs’. The news of Abe’s tenure ending soon gained credence following the remarks of former PM Junichiro Koizumi when he said that Abe may quit as early as in June. The latest signs of trouble for Abe surfaced as it came ahead of his summit meeting with US President Donald Trump, where the difficult topics of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and touchy trade matter were on the agenda. 

Abe’s popularity nosedives

For some time now, Abe has been plagued by suspected cronyism and cover-ups. As a result, his ratings have been sliding dramatically. A survey by Nippon TV released recently showed Abe’s support had sunk to 26.7 per cent, the lowest since the conservative lawmaker took office in December 2012. An Asahi newspaper poll published around the same time put his ratings at 31 per cent. This sudden sliding in ratings raise doubts over whether Abe can win a third three-year term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president in a September vote, that he needs to win to stay in office, or whether he might  even resign before the party vote. There are also speculations about Abe holding a snap general election as he did in October 2017, when his ratings were in a similar slump.

Despite Abe repeatedly denying of any wrongdoing, the speculation of Abe resigning is rife, particularly after Koizumi put a specific date, June 20, as the likely date when Abe puts in his paper, the date when parliament’s session ends. Koizumi who had groomed Abe as his successor became later his strong critic after Abe supported nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima crisis. According to Koizumi, if Abe hangs on, it could hurt LDP candidates in an upper house election next summer.

Scandals and protests

Public opposition to Abe’s continuance in power peaked when protestors numbering about 50,000 demonstrated on 14 April near the Diet holding signs saying “Abe is Over” and chanting “Abe quit”. They were protesting Abe administration’s handling of various scandals. They were voicing their concern that there was a “crisis in democracy”.  In political demonstrations of any kind in Japan, 50,000 is not a small number and Abe would have reason to worry. There were similar protests in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka against what was perceived as falsification of documents by Finance Ministry officials in the twin cases of MoritomoGakuen and Kake Educational Institution. The “candle demonstration” of April 14 in Tokyo was organised by the writer Hisae Sawachi and others to oppose Abe’s move to revise the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. Sawachi was inspired to use candles from similar protests held in South Korea against government corruption under former South Korean President Park Geun-hye. It may be mentioned that Park was found guilty in judicial trial and serving now 24 years sentence in jail.   

The charge against Abe is that he had intervened to ensure preferential treatment for educational institution KakeGakuen, run by his friend Kotaro Kake, to set up a veterinary school. Abe has repeatedly denied that he or his wife intervened in a heavily discounted sale of state-owned land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, to another nationalist school operator, MoritomoGakuen, linked to Abe and his wife. Koizumi reminded Abe of his pledge to quit as prime minister and lawmaker if he or his wife, Akie, are found to have been involved in the deal. Abe’s argument is perceived to be weak because his wife briefly served as honorary principal of the elementary school Morimoto planned to open on the land. Koizumi argues: “How can he say that he is unrelated (to the matter)?” The Asahi survey also showed that two-thirds of voters did not trust Abe’s explanations. Sixty-one per cent of the respondents in the survey said Akie, who was named honorary principal of the elementary school that Morimoto Gakuen planned to open on the land, should testify in the Diet about the scandal as one way to resolve the issue. Opposition alleged that finance ministry officials falsified documents to the land deal, also claiming that the waste land volume was inflated to justify the sharp discount for the land. The price was alleged to have been slashed because of the close relationship between first lady Akie Abe and the former director of the school operator.

Sexual harassment scandal

Another scandal that has dented Abe’s popularity is the involvement of a top bureaucrat of the finance ministry in sexual harassment of several female journalists. Junichi Fukuda, the concerned bureaucrat holding the position of Administrative Vice Finance Minister, has denied the allegations in Shincho magazine and vowed to sue its publisher for defamation, though he apologised for causing trouble to the finance minister and ministry officials “by inviting public distrust”. According to ShukanShincho report, Fukuda made repeated suggestive comments, such as asking to touch the reporter’s breasts and offering to have an affair with her. The report also alleged that Fukuda made similar sexually suggestive comments to other female reporters. The Finance Ministry on April 16 released the results of its investigation into claims that Fukuda made sexually suggestive comments while conversing with a reporter at a bar where he offered to meet her for an interview. When questioned, Fukuda denied having any such exchange with the female reporter and said he had no intention to resign his post. 

Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso also came under pressure to resign for his responsibility for appointing Fukuda as he was not sure if the allegations against Fukuda were true. Aso remarked that he was not considering resigning from his post. Aso defended Fukuda by saying that he did not view the bureaucrat as unfit for his job given his performance during his long career. In a strongly worded editorial on April 17, the popular Asahi Shimbun observed that the sex harassment allegations are the latest blow to Abe administration and cast doubt over Abe’s ability to govern the nation. The allegations are unlikely to settle down quickly as some lawmakers within the ruling coalition have started calling for Fukuda’s resignation. The editorial observed: “The pathetic state of the ministry, which controls the nation’s budgets and taxation, poses a serious threat to the survival of the administration.”

Sexual harassment case has put the focus on human rights and journalism ethics. Earlier National Tax Agency Commissioner Nobuhisa Sagawa resigned over the dubious sale of state-owned land to school operator Morimoto Gakuen. If Fukuda is forced to quit, it will result in an extraordinary situation when two vice-minister level posts shall become vacant. Sexual harassment is a grave violation of human rights and if the allegations against Fukuda are true, his actions would be seen as completely unforgivable. If Fukuda sticks to his stand and contests the allegations, there has to be judicial intervention to determine the truth.  

 Contenders FOR top post

There are some LDP leaders who could pose serious challenge to Abe leadership. Former cabinet minister and former secretary-general of the LDP Shigeru Ishiba made his intention clear that he wants to challenge Abe for the top post. Often critical of Abe’s policy stance, with 26.6 per cent vote share in a survey by Kyodo, Ishiba is the best suited to become the next prime minister. From the younger lot, Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, ranked second with 25.2 per cent, while Abe’s position sinking to third position with 18.3 per cent. Former foreign minister and chairman of the party’s Policy Research Council Fumio Kishida, another possible contender, was fourth with 5.9 per cent followed by Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda at 3.6 per cent and Foreign Minister Taro Kono with 2.9 per cent. Within the LDP, however, Abe still enjoys 36.7 per cent support as against 24.7 per cent enjoyed by Ishiba. A similar survey by Asahi on April 14 and 15 listed four above mentioned politicians who are likely to be the leading candidates in the LDP’s leadership election in September and asked who is suitable for the next party chief.

The Asahi Shimbun had conducted similar polls in January and March as well. The latest survey of April 14 and 15 showed that support for Ishiba continued to rise from 20 per cent in January and 22 per cent in

March, while Abe’s support declined from 31 per cent in January and 24 per cent in March. 

Irrespective of whether Abe remains in power or not, the fact that he provided a long spell of political stability speaks of his credentials as a politician who could be trusted and the party reposed its faith on him for a long time. He is the third-longest-serving post-war prime minister behind Eisaku Sato and Shigeru Yoshida. The popular Koizumi also managed to stay in the top job from 2001 to 2006. With other aspirants hanging by the side, Abe also faces sharp criticism from LDP’s factions and coalition partner Komeito, which make things more difficult for Abe and his government. The LDP insiders say that as Abe’s disapproval rating climb, Abe himself may give up plans to hold on for a third term. There is also a possibility that Abe may even quit before his term as party head expires. For example, Akiko Santo, acting head of the faction of the LDP led by Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, warned that Abe’s firmly guarded castle may collapse if Abe does not shed his “arrogance”.

Even Abe’s policy towards revising the Article 9 of the Constitution and the pursuance of collective self-defence as a precursor to this does not have universal approval. An overwhelming percentage of people feel that civilian control of the Self-Defense Forces was no longer in place. Among LDP supporters, 56 per cent felt the problems were emerging because Abe has been prime minister since December 2012.     

Assessment

Until recently Abe looked relatively invincible, having benefited from a weak opposition and public weariness over the revolving door at the Prime Minister’s office that preceded his election in 2012. Abe further capitalised and strengthened his domestic support base as he was able to persuade voters that he was the best leader to keep Japan secure in the face of increasing threats from China and North Korea. The economy too slowly started leapfrogging as Abenomics started giving small dividends. The recent scandals now threaten to undo such advantages. The consensus that Japan needed a strong leader has started eroding. If Abe can successfully withstand the impending storm, it could be more because of public fatigue than anything else that could help him. This is no denying the fact however that Abe has been politically weakened a bit. And this weakened position shall make it more difficult for Abe to push through some of his most cherished agenda, including revising the country’s pacifist constitution. With Japan preparing for the mega Olympics event in 2020, it might not be suitable for Japan to have a change in the leadership at this critical time. In the event of Abe’s departure from office, if that happens, will it impact Japan’s ties with India? The answer is a resolute No. Change is the political leadership in either country shall have no impact on the burgeoning ties in all spectrum of the relationship and the strength of the democratic structure shall remain unaffected a bit.

The writer is former Senior Fellow at IDSA and ICCR Chair at Reitaku University, Japan

 
 
 
 
 

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