By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) – A series of controversial missteps has reduced Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s support to a level that could end his term early, even as he prepares to lift the state of emergency after the rate of coronavirus infections has dropped.
The drop in ratings, now below 30%, could undermine Abe’s influence in his Liberal Democratic Party and spark speculation that he could step down before the end of his term as ruling party leader and thus Prime Minister in September 2021.
Abe had already supported his response to the pandemic, which critics call clumsy and deaf.
Then he excited attempts to keep Tokyo’s top prosecutor in his post-retirement job and enact a law that would extend prosecutors’ retirement age, which critics said would undermine judicial independence.
Prosecutor Hiromu Kurokawa resigned Thursday after admitting that he played mahjong for money in an emergency when citizens were asked to stay at home.
“Abe may be able to stop the decline if the coronavirus situation does not worsen and the Kurokawa scandal subsides,” said Gerry Curtis, emeritus professor at Columbia University. “But I can’t see him regaining a lot of ground. He’s a lame duck at best and dead if the numbers keep falling.”
Japan is not suffering from the explosive increase in coronavirus infections seen elsewhere, and Abe is expected to lift the state of emergency for Tokyo and four other prefectures on Monday.
However, a weekend opinion poll by the Asahi newspaper found that its support rate had dropped to 29%, a decrease to 27%, which was published in a survey published by the Mainichi newspaper on Saturday.
Almost 70% of voters in the Asahi poll said Abe had “great responsibility” for trying to keep Kurokawa. Fifty-seven percent disapproved of how he dealt with the Corona virus outbreak.
A costly program to send two protective masks to each household has been affected by complaints about mold, insects, and stains. Abe also had to abandon a 300,000 yen (2,786 USD) cash payment plan for severely affected households and replace it with 100,000 yen payouts for each citizen. However, the new program was criticized for technical and other problems in the application process.
Japan’s economy is already on its way to its deepest collapse in post-war history, an outlook that could make it difficult for Abe – who has endured difficult times since returning to office in 2012 – to regain his footing.
Several names were named as possible successors, including former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, a rare LDP critic of the Prime Minister.
But while Ishiba does well in opinion polls, its support in the LDP is weak, while Kishida has no popular support.
“If there was an obvious successor, Abe might have to stop, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University. “It is the worst situation.”
(Reporting by Linda Sieg. Editing by Gerry Doyle)