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Independents have their day as Abe's support sinks

Major Japanese polls show cabinet's disapproval ratings surging

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is struggling to contain diving approval ratings amid a series of scandals.

TOKYO -- Allegations of political favoritism are breeding deep public dissatisfaction with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet, sending disapproval ratings surging and increasing the ranks of voters identifying themselves as independents.

Ten major polls by Japanese media organizations have registered sub-40% approval readings since Abe's Liberal Democratic Party took a beating in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly elections July 2. The numbers range from 39% in a Nikkei Inc./TV Tokyo survey to 26% in the Mainichi newspaper poll.

Two other polls in the group show approval falling below 30%. A Jiji Press survey places support at 29.9%, down more than 15 points since June. Results vary between polling organizations because of such factors as how questions are asked. But six of the 10 polls showed double-digit drops from the previous month, with the rest not far behind.

The numbers have sent the governing coalition into crisis mode. "We wish to restore the faith of our citizens by maintaining a sense of urgency," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Monday.

But a midranking legislator in the LDP was less than optimistic. "There is nothing that will trigger a reversal," the lawmaker said, lamenting that "this is a difficult juncture."

How the mighty have fallen

This is all a far cry from January, when the cabinet was riding high on approval ratings in the 50s and 60s, according to 11 polls. But then the political world was rocked by revelations that a right-wing private school operator received a sweetheart land deal for a new primary school.

Despite the mounting controversy, the cabinet had maintained the same level of support as of April. But the bottom fell out over the next three months.

"Earlier this year, the gaffes and similar missteps by the cabinet eroded the number of people who strongly support the government, and they shifted to moderate support," said Masamichi Ida, a political science professor at Meiji University, who explained that "the shock of the metropolitan assembly election triggered an avalanche" of respondents giving up support altogether.

The cratering support dovetails with the steep rise in detractors. The cabinet's disapproval rating shot up 10 points from June to 52% in the new Nikkei survey. Nearly all other polls show double-digit increases in disapproval.

Don't label me

But none of the major alternative parties are benefiting from the turmoil. Support for the LDP sank 5 points from the previous Nikkei poll to 35%. Coalition member Komeito took a 2-point hit to 3%. The leading opposition Democratic Party drew support of just 6%, also down 2 points.

Instead, those claiming no party affiliation shot up 9 points to a 41% plurality, taking the lead once held by the LDP.

Sunday's mayoral election in the Miyagi Prefecture capital of Sendai, the opposition-backed candidate defeated the ruling bloc nominee. "The headwinds against the LDP created an impact," Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai said the day after.

Independents also carried Tomin First no Kai, the party once led by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, to its upset in the city's assembly election. The LDP could stand to lose many seats in the Diet if a political party that can harness the fury emerges.

Abe's cabinet experienced a similar attrition of support in 2015 during the fight to expand the Self-Defense Forces' overseas role. But while that decline was caused by a controversial government agenda, the current negative sentiment focuses on the perceived arrogance of the prime minister's office, according to Ida. "The sense of stability that was the government's selling point has been shaken, and it's having an effect," the professor explained.


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