Abe pledges Constitution change amid scandal

Mr Shinzo Abe at the LDP's annual convention in Tokyo yesterday. His political capital is dwindling owing to a scandal over a land deal.
Mr Shinzo Abe at the LDP's annual convention in Tokyo yesterday. His political capital is dwindling owing to a scandal over a land deal.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Despite his fading popularity over land deal issue, he vows to reform pacifist Constitution

TOKYO • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday vowed to press on with his controversial move to amend Japan's pacifist Constitution, undeterred by a political scandal that has dented his popularity.

Mr Abe's political capital is dwindling owing to a widening scandal over the cut-price sale of government land to one of his supporters, with the opposition suggesting that his wife may have played a role.

The scandal worsened when Finance Ministry bureaucrats admitted altering official records of the sales, erasing references to Mr Abe and his wife as well as other political figures.

"I will thoroughly investigate and show the whole picture of what happened," Mr Abe told the annual meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

"And I will fulfil my duty by rebuilding the (government) organisation so that this will not happen again," he said, reiterating his resolve to stay in power.

Mr Abe has denied any involvement by him or his wife in the case but protesters have staged rallies across the nation.

His close ally, Finance Minister Taro Aso, has also denied involvement in the alterations made by ministry officials.

Mr Abe's approval rating has fallen to its lowest level since his return to power at the end of 2012. Public opinion polls last weekend showed support for Mr Abe's Cabinet sinking as low as 31 per cent, with majorities saying he bears some responsibility for the affair.

The sliding support rates could dash Mr Abe's hopes of winning a third three-year term as ruling LDP leader in a party vote in September, victory in which would set him on track to become Japan's longest ruling premier.

National attention is turning to parliamentary testimony scheduled for tomorrow by Mr Nobuhisa Sagawa, formerly the head of the Finance Ministry department that oversaw the land deal.

Despite his fading popularity, Mr Abe told the party gathering that he was committed to changing the Constitution, imposed by the United States on the defeated nation after World War II.

Mr Abe said he wants to end the debate over the constitutionality of Japan's military, officially known as the Self-Defence Forces (SDF).

The Constitution says Japan renounces war and will not maintain land, sea or air forces.

Scholars have long argued about whether the existence of the SDF is constitutional.

The military is well regarded by the general public, and there is widespread acceptance of the government's traditional view that it should be used only for self-defence.

Mr Abe, however, in 2015 expanded the role of the Japanese forces to include the defence of friendly nations, prompting protests from scholars and voters alike that the change violated the Constitution.

"Now is the time to reform the Constitution," said Mr Abe. "Let us end this unconstitutionality debate."

His conservative coalition holds a two-thirds "super majority" in the 465-seat Lower House, giving him the numbers to realise his long-held dream.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2018, with the headline 'Abe pledges Constitution change amid scandal'. Print Edition | Subscribe