Tokyo — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe struck an apologetic tone on Monday as he expressed his regret that a cronyism scandal had eaten into parliamentary debate on policy and triggered public mistrust in his government.
Abe said the opposition’s focus on the question of his possible intervention in the government’s approval of a school run by one of his close associates took up too much time in the current parliament session. The premier said he would fulfil his responsibility to explain the issue.
"I feel the public deserve an apology," Abe said. "This session of parliament, far from having constructive debate, was dominated by mutual recriminations. A great deal of discussion time was taken up with matters that are unrelated to policy."
His grip on the ruling Liberal Democratic Party appeared to be slipping as concern about the cronyism and the rushed passage of an "anti-conspiracy" law triggered his biggest drop in support since taking office in 2012.
After repeated denials, government documents emerged last week pointing to his office’s possible involvement in favours given to a close Abe associate who was opening a veterinary college in a special economic zone.
His coalition also pushed through legislation that expands government surveillance powers, sparking criticism that his party cut short the latest parliamentary session to avoid further questions over the school scandal.
Support for Abe’s cabinet tumbled 12 percentage points to 49% in a poll conducted by the Yomiuri newspaper over the weekend — the lowest figure in a year.
A raft of other surveys also found substantial slides, with a Mainichi newspaper survey showing his approval rate at 36%, lower than the disapproval level of 44%.
While the scandal has hurt Abe, he does not appear to be at risk of resigning, and the main opposition Democratic Party has gained little from his decline in popularity.
Still, it may prompt him to avoid calling an early election — which seemed likely only a few months ago.
"The prime minister’s office is very nervous about this, and it will be a substantial blow, but there is no clear illegality" regarding the school, said Yu Uchiyama, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.
"So Abe won’t resign over it. In terms of the electoral effect, he will want to wait until his reputation has recovered, so he is unlikely to call an election this year."
The prime minister’s biggest challenge may come from his own camp as rivals prepare for a party leadership election in autumn 2018. Even before the latest polls, rare criticism had begun to emerge from within his long-ruling LDP.
The party faces a stern test in a Tokyo assembly election early next month. The capital’s popular governor, Yuriko Koike, has established her own political group and is expected to take seats from Abe’s ruling party.
The latest Abe scandal revolves around the approval of a plan to establish the Kake Gakuen veterinary college on the island of Shikoku. The local government offered Abe’s associate a free plot of land for the project, ostensibly on the basis that the college would bolster the local economy.
The public furore marks the second time Abe has faced accusations over links to an educational institution this year. In both cases, he has denied any wrongdoing.
The involvement of a special economic zone in the scandal could begin to undermine public backing for the "Abenomics" policies that have kept the cabinet’s support relatively steady for more than four years, according to Katsutoshi Inadome, senior fixed income strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities.
The raft of negative polls for Abe did little to sway markets on Monday. The benchmark Topix index rose 0.6%, with a weaker yen supporting Japanese equities.
Seventy percent of respondents to the Yomiuri poll said they were not convinced by the government’s insistence that it had followed correct procedures in the establishment of the veterinary college. More than 41% said they did not support Abe’s cabinet; and of those, 48% cited distrust of its members as the reason. More than 60% said they disapproved of the government’s handling of the anti-conspiracy bill.
Abe, the third-longest-serving premier since the Second World War, previously served a scandal-ridden one-year term in office. He resigned in poor health in 2007, only to make a surprise return as party leader five years later.
The LDP changed its rules this year to allow him a third consecutive term as party leader, which would take him through to 2021 if he wins the election.