Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, speaks during a news conference at an EU-Japan trade summit in Brussels, Belgium. (Photographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Bloomberg)

Japan's Abe Gets Imperial Bump as Support Surges Ahead of Vote

(Bloomberg) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s support surged after the country’s first imperial abdication and accession in two centuries -- a highly watched event fanning national pride that boosted his standing ahead of a July upper house election.

A poll carried out by the Nikkei newspaper at the weekend found 55% of respondents supported Abe’s cabinet, up 7 percentage points on the previous survey in late March. A separate poll by TV news network JNN found support at 57.4%, up four percentage points on the previous month.

Japan's Abe Gets Imperial Bump as Support Surges Ahead of Vote

But Abe, who played a prominent role in the April 30 abdication ceremonies of former Emperor Akihito and May 1 ascension of Emperor Naruhito, runs the slight risk of public sentiment souring ahead of the upper house vote with the polls showing weak support for his main economic policies and his plan to hike the sales tax in October.

Asked whether they felt any actual benefit from his signature policy program dubbed “Abenomics,” 87% of respondents to the JNN poll said they didn’t. The Nikkei poll showed 57% of respondents opposed hiking the sales tax to 10% from the current 8%, a policy aimed at taming Japan’s ballooning debt.

But with no major challengers on the horizon in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition in disarray, Abe is set to become the country’s longest-serving premier -- a milestone he would reach in November.

If he can keep the strong public approval, it could prompt him to call a lower house election to coincide with the upper house election. Victory in both would probably strengthen calls for him to stay on as party leader for an unprecedented fourth-straight term.

Japan's Abe Gets Imperial Bump as Support Surges Ahead of Vote

The Nikkei poll showed 23% of respondents favored Abe as the next prime minister, equal with the long-time favorite, Shinjiro Koizumi, 38, and the most prominent member of the LDP’s new guard. Koizumi remained more popular among female respondents, the Nikkei said.

Abe may benefit from a continuing series of high-profile events this year, including a state visit by U.S. President Donald Trump this month and Japan’s hosting of the Group of 20 summit meeting in June. Abe has also floated a highly risky summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with respondents in the Nikkei poll about equally divided on whether he should pursue a meeting or not.

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