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Scandals, sluggish economy take toll on Abe's popularity

Updated: 2014-10-28 07:58
By Associated Press in Tokyo (China Daily)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's honeymoon with the voters is fading as scandals and a slowing economic recovery take a toll on his popularity and hinder progress on his policy agenda.

The resignations of two ministers in Abe's newly reshuffled Cabinet and reports that political funds of the replacement trade minister were used in a visit to a sex-show bar were just the start.

Those reports got people digging into the riches to be found in publicly available political funding disclosures. They show some lawmakers spending hundreds and often thousands of dollars a night on visits to restaurants and mahjong parlors, while ordinary households are struggling to keep up with the rising costs of food, heating and other necessities.

The most recent opinion polls show Abe's approval ratings slipping to around 50 percent. They had mostly been in the 60s since 2013.

The controversies are an unwelcome distraction at a time of sharpening divisions within the ruling party over whether Abe should press ahead with a sales-tax hike next year that is needed to help fix the tattered finances of the world's third-largest economy.

News of possible election law and political funding violations forced the resignations last week of Abe's justice and trade ministers, both among the five women who had just taken office in the early September Cabinet reshuffle that showcased Abe's commitment to stronger roles for women in leadership.

"It's a serious setback. So much of the Abe Cabinet's shine was due to its aura of invincibility and inevitability," said Michael Cucek, a Tokyo-based analyst and fellow at Temple University Japan.

Troubles over campaign funds and related issues have long contributed to Japan's famous "revolving door" politics. Abe's first term as prime minister, 2006 to 2007, ended when he was driven from office by scandals and health problems.

Abe got a rare second chance when his Liberal Democrats regained power from the Democratic Party in December 2012. Since then, the LDP's coalition with the Buddhist-affiliated Komeito, or Clean Government Party, has established majorities in both houses of the parliament.

This time around, Abe has cultivated a confident, relaxed style of leadership, repeatedly declaring "Japan is back!" while his chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, endeavors to keep their gaffe-prone allies more or less in line.

"Until this crisis, it looked pretty certain he was just going to cruise," Cucek said. "Now that politics as usual has returned, we could see the same sort of decay that we've seen in the past."

Trade Minister Yuko Obuchi, a rising star and daughter of former prime minister Keizo Obuchi, resigned on Oct 20 after admitting to discrepancies in reporting of her political funding. Justice Minister Midori Matsushima also quit after the opposition filed a criminal complaint alleging that the distribution of "uchiwa", or hand-held fans, to her supporters violated a ban on gift giving.

Obuchi's successor as trade minister, Yoichi Miyazawa, then drew fire over an 18,230 yen ($170) tab listed in his political funds accounting for an evening's entertainment at a sadomasochism-themed establishment in his home city of Hiroshima. Miyazawa and his staff said he did not visit the club himself, and the money was paid back.

His next gaffe as the minister responsible for the power industry was ownership of shares in Tokyo Electric Power Co, whose Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant suffered meltdowns after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan's northeast coast.

Over the weekend, reports noted that political funds of Taro Aso, a former prime minister who is now finance minister, were used to pay monthly tabs of up to 1.5 million yen to a mahjong parlor in the Roppongi nightclub district.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's honeymoon with the voters is fading as scandals and a slowing economic recovery take a toll on his popularity and hinder progress on his policy agenda.

The resignations of two ministers in Abe's newly reshuffled Cabinet and reports that political funds of the replacement trade minister were used in a visit to a sex-show bar were just the start.

Those reports got people digging into the riches to be found in publicly available political funding disclosures. They show some lawmakers spending hundreds and often thousands of dollars a night on visits to restaurants and mahjong parlors, while ordinary households are struggling to keep up with the rising costs of food, heating and other necessities.

The most recent opinion polls show Abe's approval ratings slipping to around 50 percent. They had mostly been in the 60s since 2013.

The controversies are an unwelcome distraction at a time of sharpening divisions within the ruling party over whether Abe should press ahead with a sales-tax hike next year that is needed to help fix the tattered finances of the world's third-largest economy.

News of possible election law and political funding violations forced the resignations last week of Abe's justice and trade ministers, both among the five women who had just taken office in the early September Cabinet reshuffle that showcased Abe's commitment to stronger roles for women in leadership.

"It's a serious setback. So much of the Abe Cabinet's shine was due to its aura of invincibility and inevitability," said Michael Cucek, a Tokyo-based analyst and fellow at Temple University Japan.

Troubles over campaign funds and related issues have long contributed to Japan's famous "revolving door" politics. Abe's first term as prime minister, 2006 to 2007, ended when he was driven from office by scandals and health problems.

Abe got a rare second chance when his Liberal Democrats regained power from the Democratic Party in December 2012. Since then, the LDP's coalition with the Buddhist-affiliated Komeito, or Clean Government Party, has established majorities in both houses of the parliament.

This time around, Abe has cultivated a confident, relaxed style of leadership, repeatedly declaring "Japan is back!" while his chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, endeavors to keep their gaffe-prone allies more or less in line.

"Until this crisis, it looked pretty certain he was just going to cruise," Cucek said. "Now that politics as usual has returned, we could see the same sort of decay that we've seen in the past."

Trade Minister Yuko Obuchi, a rising star and daughter of former prime minister Keizo Obuchi, resigned on Oct 20 after admitting to discrepancies in reporting of her political funding. Justice Minister Midori Matsushima also quit after the opposition filed a criminal complaint alleging that the distribution of "uchiwa", or hand-held fans, to her supporters violated a ban on gift giving.

Obuchi's successor as trade minister, Yoichi Miyazawa, then drew fire over an 18,230 yen ($170) tab listed in his political funds accounting for an evening's entertainment at a sadomasochism-themed establishment in his home city of Hiroshima. Miyazawa and his staff said he did not visit the club himself, and the money was paid back.

His next gaffe as the minister responsible for the power industry was ownership of shares in Tokyo Electric Power Co, whose Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant suffered meltdowns after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan's northeast coast.

Over the weekend, reports noted that political funds of Taro Aso, a former prime minister who is now finance minister, were used to pay monthly tabs of up to 1.5 million yen to a mahjong parlor in the Roppongi nightclub district.

 

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