Japan's Abe Deflects Calls for Wife to Testify as Support Sinks

(Bloomberg) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saw support slide in two more public opinion surveys Monday, as he sought to deflect demands that his wife answer public questions about a land-sale scandal.

An Asahi News Network poll conducted over the weekend showed Abe’s approval rating fell 11.7 percentage points to 32.6 percent over the past month, while disapproval rose 13.2 points to 54.9 percent. A separate Nikkei newspaper poll found 49 percent of respondents disapproved of the premier, compared with 42 percent who approved.

The prime minister faced renewed questions in parliament Monday over the sale of public land at a fraction of its value to a nationalist school operator with links to his wife, Akie. Revelations this month that the Finance Ministry had doctored documents relating to the deal renewed public anger over the scandal, which has simmered for a year.

Abe has repeatedly apologized, while denying that either he or his wife, Akie, were involved in the transaction or the alteration of documents. On Monday, he told a parliamentary committee he would take responsibility if his statements about Akie were found to contain any lies.

QuickTake: The School Scandal Haunting Japan Prime Minister Abe

“I bear political responsibility for my remarks in parliament, which is different from my wife giving a press conference,” he said, when an opposition lawmaker urged him to have Akie speak in public. “If there’s any mistake or falsehood, I will take responsibility.”

Some 63 percent of those surveyed in the ANN poll said Abe’s wife should testify in parliament, and about half said his entire cabinet should step down.

While support for opposition parties remains weak, it is rising, and public anger has cast a shadow over Abe’s prospects of winning a third term as ruling party president in a September election. The allegations of cronyism have also sparked calls for Finance Minister Taro Aso to resign, and are reducing Abe’s chances of achieving his long-held ambition of changing the pacifist constitution.

The suicide of a junior finance ministry official over the controversy has also soured sentiment. The most common reason for disapproval given by respondents to the Nikkei poll was a lack of trustworthiness.

Call for Akie

In some relief for Abe, a senior finance ministry official told parliament Monday that neither the prime minister nor Aso had ordered changes to the documents, nor were they involved. The next test for the premier will come on Tuesday, when Nobuhisa Sagawa, a former ministry official who resigned over his role in overseeing the transaction, is scheduled to testify in the Diet.

A separate poll conducted a week ago by Kyodo news found former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba was the most popular candidate to become party leader in September, with 25.4 percent of respondents picking him. Second was Shinjiro Koizumi, son of a popular former prime minister, with Abe in third place.

Public approval is not necessarily the main factor in the selection of a new leader of the main ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who will be chosen by its members.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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