June 19, 2017 4:38 am JST

Down in polls, Abe eyes cabinet reshuffle

Even cabinet supporters unconvinced by government's side of school story

Prime Minister Abe considers changes to his current cabinet.

TOKYO -- Shinzo Abe intends to refresh his cabinet in August or September but is expected to keep on his finance chief and top spokesman, government and ruling party sources told The Nikkei, with opinion polls showing a loss of public confidence in the Japanese prime minister's leadership.

The gap between Abe's approval and disapproval ratings has narrowed from plus 40 percentage points in January to just 7 points in the latest Nikkei Inc. poll.

Against the wind

Weekend polling results from various media outlets show a sharp rise in disapproval ratings. The biggest driver of this reversal has been the Kake affair, in which a conservative educational institution is suspected to have received preferential treatment for plans to establish a veterinary school at Abe's behest.

The jump in disapproval "is bigger than we expected," said Hakubun Shimomura, a senior official in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and former education minister. It shows "we haven't been able to get through to voters on the Kake affair," he told The Nikkei.

"There will be a negative impact" on the LDP's performance in the July 2 Tokyo metropolitan assembly election, Shimomura warned, adding that the party "must try to minimize" the damage.

Three-quarters of respondents to the Nikkei poll voiced dissatisfaction with the government's explanation of how the school project was approved, which has consisted of denying Abe's involvement in the matter. Even among respondents that support the cabinet, 61% remain unconvinced; among non-supporters, dissatisfaction reached 97%.

By contrast, 43% of all respondents found convincing the former ministry of education top bureaucrat who has come out against the Abe government on the Kake affair, saying that the normal administrative process was "distorted." That was more than the 36% who were unconvinced by him.

The main opposition Democratic Party looks poised to step up its attacks on the government's credibility. "The tide has clearly turned," party leader Renho said.

But a 4-percentage-point fall in the LDP's approval rating has not translated into greater support for the Democratic Party, which remained at 8%.

Cabinet reshuffle

The prime minister will seek to retain Taro Aso, his deputy and finance minister, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in his next cabinet slate, sources said. But it remains to be seen whether Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada and Nobuteru Ishihara, the cabinet point man for economic and fiscal policy, stay on.

Some say Kishida should bow out ahead of the fall 2018 LDP leadership contest, in which he is expected to run.

Abe will hold a news conference Monday to lay out his government's agenda for the coming months. Sunday marked the end of a parliamentary session that culminated in last week's enactment of controversial anti-conspiracy legislation.

(Nikkei)

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