TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on Monday (July 24) forced on the defensive as the opposition lobbed questions at him over a cronyism scandal that has sunk his approval ratings to record lows.
The scandal has evolved into Mr Abe's biggest crisis in his 4½ years in power, and he is eyeing a Cabinet shake-up as soon as August 3 to win back public trust.
Mr Abe's earlier refusal to answer a Diet inquiry into allegations that he pulled strings to help his friend set up the veterinary school has fuelled perceptions of arrogance by the Abe administration, which led to electoral defeats for his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Tokyo elections earlier this month (July) and Sunday's (July 23) mayoral election for the northern city of Sendai.
The scandal and electoral setbacks have cast doubt on Mr Abe’s hopes for a third three-year term as LDP leader.
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He is alleged to have applied pressure so that a new veterinary school run by his close friend Kotaro Kake, who chairs the Kake Gakuen education institution, will be approved. That would be Japan’s first such school in 52 years in spite of a glut of animal doctors.
“Mr Kake has been a friend since my student days, and way before I became a politician,” Mr Abe said in his opening remarks to the Lower House, as he acknowledged the “inadequacies” in how his government has explained itself to the public so far.
“However, he has never tried to leverage on my status or position in his accomplishments,” he said. “I will like to very clearly and firmly state there is absolutely no way that (Mr Kake) asked for the government’s approval for the establishment of the department.”
The school would have been opened in Ehime prefecture south of Hiroshima, where rules have been relaxed as part of a national deregulated zone.
Abe’s aide, Hiroto Izumi, and former top education ministry official Kihei Maekawa, who has accused the government of distorting the approval process for the veterinary school, clashed at the panel session, reported Reuters.
Izumi denied Maekawa’s account that he had implied in a conversation with the latter that Kake Gakuen’s new school should be approved “because the prime minister cannot say so himself”.
Even as public opinion spiraled southwards, Mr Abe has insisted his government had been above board in the processes, and that he had been trying to undo years of “bedrock regulations”. He has said that short of only in Ehime, veterinary schools should be allowed across the country, in remarks that incensed the Japan Veterinary Medical Association.
The unrelenting scandal has hurt his approval ratings, which have fallen to below 40 per cent in separate polls by various media outlets this month. A poll by the left-leaning Mainichi Shimbun, conducted over the weekend, showed ratings to have fallen by 10 percentage points to 26 per cent this month.
This came as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has suffered crushing local electoral setbacks. In the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election earlier this month, more than half of its original 57 lawmakers were ousted at the hands of a young upstart party helmed by former LDP member Yuriko Koike. Only 23 LDP candidates were elected.
And on Sunday (July 23), former opposition Democratic Party (DP) member Kazuko Kori was elected as Mayor of Sendai. The LDP-backed candidate Hironori Sugawara, who also had the backing of outgoing Mayor Emiko Okuyama, lost the poll.
Mr Abe on Monday (July 24) also rejected calls to fire his defence chief Tomomi Inada over an alleged cover-up of mission logs by ground troops taking part in a United Nations peacekeeping operation in South Sudan. She is expected to be replace in next month's Cabinet reshuffle.
Mr Abe will face the Upper House on Tuesday.