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News analysis

Sorry is such a timely word as Tokyo election looms

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cut a contrite figure when he said sorry for a domestic political scandal that has hurt his approval ratings, in what was seen as a bid to control damage before a key local election in Tokyo.

Vowing to regain public trust, he told a news conference on Monday: "I deeply regret my attitude for having responded in strong rebuttals that caused more heated discussions in matters apart from policy debate."

Mr Abe has been accused of cronyism for allegedly lobbying to have a veterinary school run by a close friend approved by the Education Ministry. This would be Japan's first such school in more than 50 years.

Yesterday, the Education Ministry confirmed the existence of a second set of documents alleging cronyism in the current saga involving private education operator Kake Gakuen.

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This is the second scandal to hit Mr Abe in less than six months, after ultra-nationalist educator Moritomo Gakuen was sold a plot of public land in Osaka at a hefty discount to build an elementary school. Its former chief, now under probe for fraud, claimed to be close to Mr Abe and his wife, who are known for their right-wing views.

In both scandals, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been reluctant to let key players like Mr Abe's wife, Akie, testify under oath in the Diet. Observers said this has led to accusations of arrogance and the impression that the LDP has something to hide.

Mr Hakubun Shimomura, who leads the LDP in the capital, told reporters yesterday that the party's chances could take a hit at the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election on July 2.

The LDP will go head-to-head against the new Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) party led by popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who is a renegade member of the LDP.

Observers have questioned the sincerity and timing of Mr Abe's apology, saying it is merely a political manoeuvre. Sophia University Professor Koichi Nakano said: "Mr Abe was, in effect, putting the blame on the opposition for trying to 'smear his image'. It isn't any different from a husband who is prone to domestic violence saying: 'I'm sorry I hit you. I lost my temper when you behaved badly'."

Mr Abe is in little danger of being displaced, however, given the dismal opposition and how his party has a strong grip on both chambers of the national Diet.

Polls over the weekend by Kyodo wire agency, the right-leaning Yomiuri Shimbun and the Nikkei business daily all showed Mr Abe's support rate dipping below 50 per cent for the first time in at least a year. Ms Koike has consistently polled above 60 per cent.

"The Prime Minister may be worried that a big loss in Tokyo could further erode public approval and threaten the sustainability of his administration," said Dr Sota Kato, executive director of the Tokyo Foundation think-tank. "The news conference could be seen a tactical move to pre-empt such a possibility."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2017, with the headline 'Sorry is such a timely word: Abe in damage control mode'. Print Edition | Subscribe