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Politics

Abe struggles to break cycle of scandal

Protecting controversial defense chief came with political cost for Japanese leader

Abe paid a heavy price for sticking up for his protege.

TOKYO -- From a protege's downfall at the Ministry of Defense to a less-than-stellar response to a school-related scandal, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saw his well-calibrated plans backfire spectacularly over the past week while support dwindled within his own party.

"I would like to apologize to the Japanese people that one of my ministers ended up resigning," Abe told reporters Friday. Tomomi Inada quit as defense minister that day over an alleged cover-up of daily activity logs kept by Self-Defense Forces troops taking part in peacekeeping operations in South Sudan.

Playing favorites

Few of the Diet's many women have the backbone of Inada -- or so Abe had thought regarding the now-disgraced ex-minister. Considered a possibility to become Japan's first female leader, she had been appointed to key cabinet and party posts since Abe began his second stint as prime minister in late 2012.

Her special treatment also bred resentment within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Abe could easily dismiss Inada's critics while he remained popular. But with his approval rating tanking, such sentiments could turn into a major obstacle.

Stumping for a candidate in the recent Tokyo metropolitan assembly election, Inada asked voters for their support "on behalf of the Defense Ministry, the SDF and the LDP." Even members of her own party demanded that she step down for both using the SDF for political purposes and failing to remain above the political fray as required of public servants. Yet Abe kept her on, and the LDP suffered a crushing defeat in the capital.

Despite growing calls for her resignation, Abe had hoped to switch her out as part of a larger cabinet reshuffle to prevent lasting damage to her career. But she was left with no choice after a number of her subordinates stepped down themselves over the SDF logs. Inada told Abe on Thursday that she planned to quit.

This has not been Abe's only headache recently. The Diet held a two-day recess session starting Monday to address allegations that he had pushed for quick approval for a veterinary school planned by the Kake Educational Institution, a school operator run by a close friend. But instead of clearing the air as Abe had hoped, the session only ended up deepening suspicions.

Abe seeks to shore up support by reshuffling his cabinet and the LDP leadership. But key officials -- such as LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Finance Minister Taro Aso -- are expected to stay. The prime minister may not be able to convince the public that he really means to turn over a new leaf.

Opposition grows stronger

The resignation of Renho as president of the Democratic Party could spell further trouble for Abe. One factor underpinning the prime minister's approval ratings throughout his recent struggles was that the main opposition party was even more unpopular. But with Renho's exit, Abe will need to rethink plans for an eventual lower house election.

His strategy until this point had centered on the Democrats' weakness, as well as his desire to revise the constitution. The LDP and junior partner Komeito now hold the two-thirds lower house majority needed to initiate a motion to amend the constitution. Many had expected Abe to dissolve the lower house for an election later next year.

But he could be forced to call a snap election earlier, before the Democrats have a chance to regroup under a new leader and before Tomin First no Kai, a regional party that dominated the Tokyo race, can go national.

"I told the prime minister to go on an adventure and put his political career on the line," journalist Soichiro Tahara told reporters Friday after an hourlong meeting with Abe. "He seemed to like the idea."

Tahara did not reveal what exactly this would entail. "We weren't talking about a snap election or something that small," he said. "You'll see eventually."

(Nikkei)

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