Aso likely to skip G-20 meeting: Officials

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Japanese Finance Minister fights to survive cronyism scandal paralysing Parliament

TOKYO • Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso is preparing to skip a Group of 20 (G-20) finance leaders' gathering in Buenos Aires next week, officials said yesterday, with the minister fighting to survive a cronyism scandal that has paralysed the country's Parliament.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Mr Aso - his close ally - are under pressure over the Finance Ministry's admission on Monday that it had altered records of a discounted sale of state-owned land to a school operator with ties to Mr Abe's wife.

The suspicion of a cover-up has rocked the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and could dash Mr Abe's hopes of winning a third term as party leader at a vote in September. Losing the party leadership would ruin Mr Abe's chances of becoming Japan's longest-serving prime minister.

Opposition lawmakers are calling for Mr Aso to step down to take responsibility, and some analysts believe his resignation is inevitable.

A survey by the Sankei daily showed 71 per cent of respondents said Mr Aso should resign, while support for Mr Abe's administration slid six points from last month to 45 per cent.

Another poll released by public broadcaster NHK yesterday showed that support for the Abe government had dropped to the lowest since he won a resounding re-election last October.

His support fell by two percentage points to 44 per cent from last month, NHK said, while a separate survey in the Yomiuri Shimbun daily showed support down six percentage points to 48 per cent.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Mr Aso - his close ally - are under pressure over the Finance Ministry's admission on Monday that it had altered records of a discounted sale of state-owned land to a school operator with ties to Mr Abe's wife.

When asked whether he may skip the G-20 meeting on March 19 and 20, Mr Aso told reporters yesterday that the decision will depend on the "present parliamentary situation".

"It is important to fully cooperate with the ongoing investigation. To prevent a recurrence, we will continue to look into the matter and do the utmost to regain (public) confidence," Mr Aso said, signalling his intention to ride out the storm.

The scandal has already caused a stalemate in Parliament, with opposition parties threatening to boycott a debate on the next fiscal year's Budget, potentially delaying reforms to boost long-term economic growth.

The logjam in Parliament could also leave two Bank of Japan deputy governor posts vacant when the incumbents' terms end on March 19, as the appointments need lawmakers' approval.

On Monday, Mr Aso blamed bureaucrats for the suspected cover-up. But in a rare move, several ruling party heavyweights have openly criticised Mr Abe over the scandal and warned that politicians - not just bureaucrats - need to take responsibility.

Mr Aso leads a powerful faction within the LDP. If he is forced to resign, it could erode Mr Abe's chances of winning another term, some analysts say.

"If Mr Aso resigns, that would give Mr Aso's political faction a free hand, making the LDP leadership race in September extremely fluid. In the worst case, Mr Abe may not make it for the third term," said analyst Hidenori Suezawa at SMBC Nikko Securities. "If Mr Abe goes, Abenomics will go back to square one."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2018, with the headline 'Aso likely to skip G-20 meeting: Officials'. Print Edition | Subscribe