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Japan’s cronyism scandals: how much could they hurt Abe?


by: Richard CARTER/ Agence France-Presse

Japan’s prime minister is battling multiple domestic scandals that have hammered his popularity and led some to suggest he may step down as head of the world’s third-largest economy.

Here are some key questions about the scandals that come just months before Shinzo Abe seeks re-election as head of his party, which would clear the way for him to become Japan’s longest-serving premier.

– What are the scandals? –
Two cronyism scandals, a cover-up, and a more recent sexual harassment case in the finance ministry are making daily headlines, putting Abe under unfamiliar pressure.

The opposition alleges Abe used his influence to secure a bargain price for a plot of land so an ultra-nationalist friend of his wife could build a kindergarten on the plot.

This scandal deepened when it emerged that finance ministry officials had erased references to Abe, his wife Akie and the minister in documents relating to the sale.

More recently, Abe is accused of intervening on behalf of an ally who wanted to open a veterinary school, after an official document was uncovered describing the school as “an issue that involves the prime minister”.

His defence ministry also is under fire over missing logs related to the deployment of peacekeepers in Iraq and South Sudan.

And in recent days, media attention has swung to an alleged sexual harassment case involving the top bureaucrat in the finance ministry.

– What impact are they having? –
Abe denies any involvement in the cronyism scandals and the finance ministry bureaucrat has denied sexual harassment and threatened to sue the magazine that broke the story.

Nevertheless, the daily dose of political scandal has seen Abe’s popularity ratings steadily declining.

Regular anti-Abe rallies are also increasing in scope and frequency, with the latest demonstrations drawing thousands onto the streets — an unusually large number in Japan.

– Will Abe survive? –
Rumours are swirling that Abe could step down before he is due to stand for re-election as head of his party in September, or even that he could call another snap election — only six months after sweeping back to power.

Opposition to Abe and his right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) remains extremely weak and there is no obvious candidate to replace him.

However, some analysts believe Abe could throw in the towel.

“As public support continues to tumble amid the ongoing scandals, there is a growing risk Abe will resign even before the internal Liberal Democratic Party leadership election takes place in September 2018,” said Chua Han Teng, head of Asia country risk at BMI Research.

“Even if he does not resign, he may abandon plans to seek a further term in the upcoming leadership election.”

– What happens next? –
The next key date in Japan’s political calendar is the LDP election in early September.

Before these scandals erupted, Abe seemed to be a shoo-in to be re-elected for a fresh three-year term, paving the way for him to be Japan’s longest-serving premier.

However, this now looks less clear, said Tetsuro Kato, professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

“It probably will not be possible for him to recover public support like he did in the October elections,” Kato told AFP.

“The possibility of Abe getting re-elected as party leader for the third time is (seemingly) disappearing,” he added.

Other analysts say Abe could step down before the election rather than suffer the humiliation of being jettisoned by his own party.

– Who could take over? –
Two names often mentioned in the local media are Shigeru Ishiba, who ran against Abe in the 2012 leadership election, and Shinjiro Koizumi, son of the popular former PM Junichiro Koizumi.

Other names in the mix include current Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Finance Minister Taro Aso.

However, no clear candidate has yet come forward and surveys show Abe would still be a strong contender if he stands.

“The question is who, inside the ruling party LDP, will spearhead the move to stand up against Abe,” noted Kato.