Japan PM Abe's support at two-year low over coronavirus and prosecutor Bill

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government is seen as slow and out of touch in its pandemic response. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - The support rate for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe slipped to its lowest level in two years with respondents displeased over his virus management and for pushing a Bill that critics say gives him greater power to pick senior prosecutors.

A survey taken over the weekend and released Monday (May 18) by the Asahi newspaper showed Abe's support rate fell 8 percentage points from nearly a month ago to 33 per cent, the lowest since 2018 when he was facing allegations of cronyism that rattled confidence in his government. A separate survey from TV news network ANN showed the Cabinet approval rating fell 7 percentage points to 32.8 per cent.

The Asahi survey said a driving factor for the recent fall has been a Bill proposed by Abe's government that would raise the retirement age for some senior prosecutors, which about two thirds of respondents saying they didn't support. Critics contend the Bill could allow Abe to retain prosecutors friendly to the government and has caused a massive public backlash with about five million people - including celebrities - joining a social media campaign against the proposal.

Due to the unpopularity of the measure, the government is looking to drop the Bill that would extend the retirement age for prosecutors by two years to the age of 65, the Yomiuri newspaper reported Monday without attribution.

Abe is the country's longest serving prime minister and facing one of the most difficult periods during this current run at the helm that started more than seven years ago. The public has seen his government as slow and out of touch in its pandemic response, surveys have showed, and the virus has rattled the finances of households and businesses.

The world's third-largest economy sank last quarter into a recession, data on Monday from Japan's Cabinet office showed. The situation is likely to deepen further as households limit spending to essentials and companies cut back on investment, production and hiring to stay afloat amid the coronavirus pandemic. Analysts see a 21.5 per cent contraction this quarter, a record for official data going back to 1955.

While the polls are a blow for Abe, he is unlikely to face any immediate threat as opposition parties have failed to attract voters and have support rates in the single digits. Abe must hold elections for the powerful lower house of Parliament by the autumn of 2021.

Despite the backlash over virus management, Japan has seen the fewest confirmed Covid-19 infections and deaths of any Group of Seven leading democracy. Last week, Abe removed 39 of the country's 47 prefectures earlier than scheduled from a state of emergency, as infection cases have waned.

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