TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has agreed to be questioned by the opposition in the Diet over an unrelenting cronyism scandal, in a remarkable volte-face as polls show support for his government has fallen further, to the lowest since he took power.
Mr Abe had flatly refused a Diet inquiry into allegations that he pulled strings to help an institute win approval to set up Japan's first veterinary school in 52 years. But Cabinet support ratings have plummeted to new lows as public distrust grew towards the prime minister and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Media reports have also painted an LDP in disarray, as separate factions jostle for power on the back of Mr Abe's current waning political fortunes.
Mr Abe's U-turn came late on Thursday (July 13), after the party had earlier the same day rebuffed yet another request brought by the main national opposition Democratic Party (DP) to call a Diet inquiry.
Explaining the change in stance, LDP Diet affairs chief Wataru Takeshita said: "After I had conveyed to the Prime Minister that we have refused the DP's request, he said he is willing to appear in the Diet himself and give an explanation."
The Diet, which closed on June 18, will reopen for a special session that could take place as early as next week, Mr Takeshita said. His counterpart Kazunori Yamanoi from the DP said that Mr Abe was "right to comply" in a move that is "not a moment too soon".
Support for Mr Abe’s government plunged 15.2 points from a month earlier, sliding to 29.9 per cent, according to a public opinion survey conducted on July 7 to 10 and released on Friday (July 14) by Jiji news agency.
Some 67 per cent of respondents said “we cannot trust the prime minister”, Jiji said.
The poll is the latest to show Mr Abe’s support at the lowest since he returned to office in December 2012, promising to revive the flagging economy and revise Japan's pacifist Constitution. Other polls by major media outlets NHK, Yomiuri Shimbun and Asahi Shimbun last weekend also showed a slide in Mr Abe's support rate to between 30 and 40 per cent.
The scandal has evolved into Mr Abe's biggest crisis in his 4½ years in power, and he is eyeing a Cabinet shake-up as soon as Aug 3 to win back public trust.
His moves come as the LDP was routed in the Tokyo elections earlier this month (July), winning just 23 seats. More than half of the party's original 57 lawmakers were ousted from their seats.
That led Mr Abe himself to vow "every effort" to regain public trust. But such efforts have not been forthcoming, domestic media have said, noting that the government has not yet given a proper account of itself that is backed by evidence.
The current scandal is over whether or not Mr Abe pulled strings to help Kake Educational Institute, based in Okayama prefecture in central Japan, win approval to set up the country's first veterinary school in 52 years. New schools have not been permitted for so long as the country faces a glut of animal doctors.
Other top LDP officials, including deputy chief cabinet secretary Koichi Hagiuda, have also been implicated in the scandal.
The LDP had agreed to a special Diet session on Monday (July 10) in Mr Abe's absence, in which the top bureaucrat at the centre of the storm Kihei Maekawa as called as an unsworn witness.
"There was definitely some behind-the-scenes manoeuvring at play on the part of Prime Minister's Office. It seemed as if a process had been set up to pick Kake from the outset," Mr Maekawa told the Diet.
The LDP, meanwhile, tried to discredit Mr Maekawa's credibility by raking up a separate scandal that cost him his job. Mr Maekawa was said to have lobbied for ministry officials to be parachuted into cushy post-retirement jobs in the private sector.
Mr Abe is also said to hope to shore up support in a Cabinet reshuffle by bringing in young politicians including the popular Shinjiro Koizumi, who is the son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi who led from 2001 to 2006.
In the shake-up, Mr Abe is expected to keep key allies including chief Cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, finance minister Taro Aso, and LDP second-in-command Toshihiro Nikai.
But questions are swirling over whether Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida will stay on in his post as Japan's top envoy, which he has held since 2012.
Mr Kishida, who has prime ministerial ambitions and is credited for the landmark 2015 "comfort women" deal with South Korea, is said to want to leave his post.
In remarks that have been perceived as a swipe at Mr Abe's perceived arrogance, Mr Kishida said on July 4, two days after the LDP's defeat in Tokyo: "When thinking about assuming the reins of government in the future, it is important to focus on traits such as perseverance and humility."