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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.
Abe Under Pressure

Mired in scandals, Abe's party loses to the upstart it scoffed at

Surrounded by cronies, Japanese leader turned deaf ear to voter discontent

TOKYO -- Miscalculation and shoddy campaigning led to a crushing defeat of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party in the Tokyo assembly election Sunday, allowing a local upstart to emerge as the next potential standard-bearer for Japan's conservatives. 

The writing had been on the wall even before the Sunday vote. According to a June poll by Nikkei Inc., the approval rating for Abe's cabinet stood at 49% -- down 7 points from the previous survey. Meanwhile, disapproval rose 6 points to 42%. Distrust in the government had risen steadily this year amid a wave of scandals.

Abe is suspected of giving preferential treatment to Kake Educational Institution, a school operator run by his personal friend. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party's acting secretary-general, Hakubun Shimomura, was also accused of accepting money from Kake. Defense Minister Tomomi Inada came under fire for asking voters to support a specific candidate "on behalf of the Self-Defense Forces," while Mayuko Toyota, a second-term Diet member, is mired in allegations that she had verbally and physically abused her staff. Even some LDP members had thrown in the towel on the Tokyo election.

Up until the last minute, those close to Abe had casually questioned the conservative credentials of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike 's Tomin First no Kai, seemingly unaware of the threat posed by it. The LDP lost the race despite knowing that it would be splitting conservative votes with the upstart group. In fact, the LDP ended up raising Koike's political profile by criticizing the governor, who is receptive to Abe's goal of rewriting the pacifist constitution.

That Abe allowed LDP members to unleash such attacks against her shows a lack of crisis management on his part. "This is a difficult election, but we are determined to win," the prime minister had said back in April. But he only stumped four times for individual candidates during the race, compared with more than 20 speeches he gave for the previous election. Of those he campaigned for, only one won a seat.

When Abe appeared for his first stump speech on Saturday, the crowd gathered near the Akihabara train station jeered at him to "resign" and "go home." The prime minister could not let the attacks go unchallenged. He pointed a finger at his critics, saying "we cannot lose to people like these."

The exchange perfectly captured the dynamics of the race. Perhaps the outcome would have been different if Abe had shown the capacity to listen to his critics.

The night of the vote, Abe had dinner at a high-end restaurant with his closest allies. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Finance Minister Taro Aso and Akira Amari, former minister for economic revitalization, had all stood by Abe since the beginning of his second term as prime minister. But his tendency to surround himself with friends may not have served him well. "He's not trying to return to his roots, he's just returning to his friends," a former cabinet member said.

What the Abe cabinet must do now is to humbly listen to everybody's opinion, instead of purging its critics. This could become a key theme in the cabinet and LDP leadership reshuffle expected soon.

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