Japan's Abe Sees Support Tumble as School Scandal Begins to Bite

(Bloomberg) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s support tumbled in one nationwide survey, in a sign that new revelations in a long-simmering scandal could threaten his leadership.

The support rate for Abe’s cabinet fell to 39.3 percent -- down 9.4 percentage points from a similar poll last month -- according to the survey by Jiji Press. Disapproval exceeded approval for the first time in five months.

The drop in Abe’s support was a “grim” message from the people and the government takes it very seriously, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Friday.

The poll -- conducted March 9-12 -- was the first released since a former finance ministry official quit in a scandal over a heavily discounted land sale to a school with ties to the premier.

The survey was largely conducted before the ministry’s admission Monday to doctoring documents tied to the deal -- suggesting that future polls could be worse for Abe. Opposition lawmakers have called for the premier and finance minister to step down, while some allies of Abe have raised pointed questions about the deal.

In just two weeks, Abe has gone from a solid bet for the title of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister to battling to preserve his administration. While Abe has survived several political crises -- returning to power in 2012 after resigning the premiership amid a series of scandals in 2007 -- he’s now facing one that hits him directly.

The poll found that about one-quarter of respondents who expressed disapproval of the cabinet also found Abe untrustworthy, up 8.8 percentage points from last month. The LDP’s approval rating fell 3.3 percentage points to 25.2 percent -- still far ahead of its nearest challenger.

In a sign of general discontent with the nation’s political scene, 58 percent said they supported no party.

Taking Responsibility

One LDP lawmaker who had previously been critical of Abe, Seiichiro Murakami, called for the prime minister to resign.

“The person at the top has to take responsibility for the actions of subordinates,” Murakami said in an interview. “It’s time to pull down the curtain.”

Other LDP lawmakers were more supportive of the premier, but said they were worried about the public mood.

“It isn’t a problem with Abe -- it’s all an internal finance ministry matter,” Akimasa Ishikawa told Bloomberg. “Abe brings great stability to Japan.”

Abe survived huge protests and a slide in his approval ratings in 2015 after pushing through controversial legislation to expand the powers of Japan’s military. Last summer, his numbers again fell into the mid-20s in some polls during a separate cronyism scandal.

He emerged from his troubles last year -- winning a landslide election victory in October -- in part by taking an uncompromising line against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over his regime’s launch of two missiles over Japan.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.