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Politics

Abe hemorrhages support over renewed school scandal

Cabinet approval sinks, risking his bid to keep power and amend constitution

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, front, and Finance Minister Taro Aso attend an upper house meeting March 19.

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's public support took a beating following the revelation of document tampering over a shady land deal, threatening his ambitions to lead the ruling party for a third term and amend the constitution.

Approval ratings for Abe's cabinet plunged to the 30% range in the latest opinion polls by various news organizations, a sign that the public is not buying the government's argument that the document tampering is an internal issue for the Finance Ministry. 

"I will continue to make efforts explaining [the incident] to the public and will work together with the government and the ruling party to regain the public's trust," Abe said Monday in a meeting with officials from his Liberal Democratic Party.

The cut-rate land sale to a nationalist school operator came to light February last year. But the tampering with related documents, reported earlier this month, breathed new life into the scandal.

The cabinet's approval rating fell by 13 percentage points since February to 31% in a weekend poll by newspaper Asahi Shimbun, and by 13.7 points to 30.3% in a survey by Nippon Television Network. Both hit their lowest since Abe began his current term as prime minister in December 2012.

The Mainichi Shimbun reported a 12-point drop in the approval rating to 33%. Kyodo News placed cabinet approval at 38.7%, down 9.4 points from its previous poll at the beginning of March.

All four polls recorded a significant increase in the cabinet's disapproval rating, which now tops the approval rating across the board. Nippon TV found that 53% of respondents disapproved of the cabinet.

Abe had seemed guaranteed to win a third term as LDP president in his party's leadership race this September. But sliding public support could cloud his prospects going forward.

"We can't say that there won't be an impact, not only in our leadership race, but in various other areas as well," LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said.

"The prime minister's rivals will gain momentum in the race," a longtime LDP lawmaker said.

Those hoping to succeed Abe are tracking the approval ratings. Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba has called repeatedly for a full probe into the Moritomo school scandal during his many trips to rural Japan.

"Unless the government can get the people to say, 'I understand,' it will be hard to get the approval rating back up," he said.

Shinjiro Koizumi, the LDP's chief deputy secretary-general and son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, has urged former National Tax Agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa to testify as a sworn witness in the Diet over the scandal.

"This is a very serious situation that undermines the government and trust in politics," Fumio Kishida, the LDP policy research chair, said Monday in a meeting with members of his political faction. But Kishida refrained from pointing fingers at Abe.

The Kyodo poll found that Abe ranked behind Ishiba and Koizumi on whom respondents thought should be the LDP's next leader. The prime minister was the most popular pick back in February.

Abe's shrinking influence could impact his push to amend Japan's constitution. The LDP's body pushing constitutional change had planned to meet Tuesday for discussions of possible revisions to the war-renouncing Article 9. But the group postponed the meeting until Thursday, citing the state of affairs in the Diet.

The LDP looks to add an explicit reference to the Self-Defense Forces to solve the persistent constitutionality issue regarding the SDF. But it remains unclear when relevant parliamentary bodies would debate the idea. Many LDP members think it is not the time to debate constitutional revisions.

Opposition parties are chiming in. "There is growing frustration and distrust over the Abe government," Democratic Party Secretary-General Teruhiko Mashiko said. "We need to thoroughly investigate what's going on."

"There is a fast-growing movement away from Abe," said Akira Koike, who heads the Japanese Communist Party's secretariat.

But disapproval for Abe has yet to generate support for the opposition. Approval for the Democratic Party totaled 11% in the Asahi poll, 13% in the Mainichi survey and 11.5% in the Kyodo poll, all remaining mostly flat. The other parties commanded less than 4% support each.

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