Abe ends on a high after surviving roller-coaster year

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was caught in two cronyism scandals earlier this year that saw his approval ratings plunge. Since then, there has been a recovery in his support, while his party also won handsomely in a snap election.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was caught in two cronyism scandals earlier this year that saw his approval ratings plunge. Since then, there has been a recovery in his support, while his party also won handsomely in a snap election.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will end what has been a roller-coaster year on a high, with steadying support ratings on the back of a resounding snap-election victory.

Mr Abe, 63, has led Japan since December 2012. And he could be in power until October 2021, when the next general election is due, if he survives an internal Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership vote next September as widely expected.

LDP rules were changed early this year to allow leaders a third consecutive three-year term, paving the way for Mr Abe to become Japan's longest-serving prime minister in June 2019.

Such a rosy ending had looked unlikely at one point, as Mr Abe was ensnared in two cronyism scandals that plunged his once Teflon-like ratings to below 30 per cent - which some analysts term the "death zone".

The scandals also shot the archaic term sontaku into the national vocabulary. One of the year's top buzzwords, it refers to a situation in which a subordinate takes pre-emptive action in surmising the wishes of his bosses.

As Mr Abe has categorically denied his personal involvement, opposition lawmakers have accused him of being evasive and opaque.

The first scandal involved a sweetheart land deal in Osaka for the stridently right-wing education group Moritomo Gakuen.

The national audit watchdog said last month there was "no basis" for the hefty discount given to Moritomo Gakuen for the public land.

The other involved allegations that Mr Abe's close friend, Mr Kotaro Kake, of education group Kake Gakuen, was given preferential treatment in the award of a tender for a new veterinary school.

Nonetheless, a Cabinet reshuffle in August jump-started a recovery in his support, prompting Mr Abe's gambit to call a snap election on Oct 22 - more than a year ahead of schedule, and in a year of political shocks in democracies around the world.

In the end, Japan voted for the status quo. The LDP won handsomely in the face of a disjointed opposition. With coalition partner Komeito, it now controls more than two-thirds of the Parliament.

"Mr Abe won as a result of voters' negative choice. It is hard to say that he is positively trusted by most of the voters," University of Tokyo political scientist Yu Uchiyama said.

While one in two professes support for the Cabinet, Dr Uchiyama said Mr Abe faces risks if his trademark Abenomics mix of economic policies loses steam, or if he overplays his hand in the divisive push towards constitutional revision.

Some within the LDP had been unhappy with the proposals on the pacifist Article 9, and Mr Abe admitted last week to having had "a tough time".

Looking ahead to 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics, he said: "I want that year to mark a significant rebirth of Japan.

"With it comes a rise in expectations for a new era and this, I believe, will necessitate us discussing the Constitution, or the way our nation should be."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2017, with the headline 'Abe ends on a high after surviving roller-coaster year'. Print Edition | Subscribe