Japan’s Longest Serving Premier Faces 2020 Hobbled by Scandals

(Bloomberg) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heads into 2020 hampered by scandals that have dragged his support to levels not seen in a year and tarnished his record as the country’s longest-serving premier.

The latest poll by the Asahi newspaper found 38% of respondents surveyed Dec. 21-22 said they supported Abe, down for the third straight month and sagging below 40% for the first time in more than a year.

Japan’s Longest Serving Premier Faces 2020 Hobbled by Scandals

Abe, 65, has a built a record of deflecting such problems since he took office for the second time seven years ago. He bounced back from allegations of cronyism in 2017 and 2018. The combination of an opposition in disarray along with a perceived lack of alternative leaders may enable him to do the same again.

The allegations of corruption could, however, weigh on the chances that he will stay on for a fourth straight term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or make progress toward his goal of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution.

Abe’s term as LDP leader ends in less than two years and several recent polls have found the most popular candidate to succeed him is Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister who has criticized the Abe administration since leaving the cabinet in 2016.

Here are some of the problems Abe is facing:

1. Cherry blossom blues

Opposition lawmakers raised questions over whether Abe rewarded constituency supporters with invitations to a publicly funded cherry blossom-viewing party. The scandal has deepened with accusations that an organized crime figure was also among the guests and the Abe government was covering up its involvement in deciding who could attend the party.

The most recent cherry blossom event in April attracted about 18,000 people, and pictures on the website of the prime minister’s office show a smiling Abe posing with celebrities, some of them dressed in colorful kimonos. Abe’s government has said it won’t hold the event next year, breaking an almost 70-year run.

Attempts to unearth evidence about the party have met with little success -- the government says the guest list happened to have been shredded an hour after an opposition lawmaker submitted an application to see it in May. A hotel gathering for Abe’s supporters held the night before the main party has also come under scrutiny.

Polls show 70% or more of respondents say they are not satisfied with Abe’s explanation about the parties.

Upshot: Unless further information emerges, the worst may be over for Abe in this scandal.

2. Casino bribery case

A ruling party lawmaker was arrested this week on suspicion of receiving bribes from a Chinese company seeking to invest in the casino industry. The first arrest of a sitting lawmaker in nearly a decade doesn’t look good for Abe but the damage may be limited since he hasn’t staked a great deal of his political capital on promoting casinos.

Upshot: The scandal will deal a blow to already unpopular plans to allow the first gambling resorts to be established in Japan. The casinos are intended to help the country meet its target of welcoming 60 million tourists a year by 2030.

3. Cabinet and business corruption

The chief executive of the partly government-owned Japan Post Holdings and two other executives are set to resign on Friday over an insurance sales scam, according to broadcaster JNN. The scandal undermined trust in the group and is likely to force a delay to the sale of the last tranche of the government’s holdings.

An October payoff scandal involving Kansai Electric Power Co. clouded the prospects for planned nuclear re-starts. The resignations of two ministers in October over suspected illicit payments also hurt the image of Abe’s cabinet. A Kyodo News poll last month indicated the public is less willing than before to accept his plans to change the constitution, and more than 60% said Abe should not stay on for another term.

Upshot: A raft of other recent scandals is set to sway government policy, as Abe enters what could be a lame duck period.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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