(Yomiuri: February 2, 2016 – p. 11)
By Risa Kato, Public Opinion Poll Department
The nationwide public opinion polls conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun show that the Abe cabinet has maintained over its three years in office support rating that are higher than those seen for other cabinets in recent years. Even the resignation of former Minister in Charge of Economic Revitalization Akira Amari over allegations of receiving illegal contributions does not seem at present to have had a [negative] impact. The question of whether the cabinet will be able to go into the Upper House elections this summer with a high support rate rests, it seems, on whether Abe is able to ensure solid economic recovery.
One reason why the Abe cabinet has maintained high support ratings since its launch in December 2012 is its skill in “damage control.”
A spot opinion poll conducted on Jan. 30–31 revealed that the cabinet support rate had stayed essentially unchanged at 56%, well exceeding the nonsupport rate of 34%. A full 70% of respondents said Amari’s resignation “made sense” while more than half – 57% – said that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s handling of the matter was “appropriate.” The prompt resignation of Amari, which came one week after allegations were published in weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, limited the spread of criticism against the administration. There were some unusual aspects of the circumstances surrounding the allegations, and it seems that the incident has not led to a decline in the support rate.
The Abe cabinet is unique for its “resilience” that enables it to restore its approval rating even if it plummets.
In December 2013 when the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets was passed, the cabinet support rate dropped 9 percentage points to 55%, but by January 2014, it had risen 7 points. In July 2014, when the cabinet passed a decision to permit the limited exercise of the right to collective self-defense, the cabinet support rate dropped 9 percentage points to 48%, but it rebounded by 13 points after Abe appointed five women to cabinet posts during the September reshuffling. In September 2015 when the security-related legislation passed, the support rate fell to its lowest ever: 41%. It returned, however, to 46% in October after the Prime Minister reshuffled the cabinet.
The reason the support rate bounces back is likely because the public looks positively on Abe’s “decisive politics” demonstrated by the conclusion of the basic agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Japan-South Korea agreement on the comfort women issue.
Abe puts priority on getting results
The Abe cabinet’s high support ratings can also be considered the flipside of the public’s disillusionment with the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration, which was in power for just over three years. When asked why they support the Abe cabinet, about 40% of respondents who support the cabinet said it was because “Abe’s cabinet is better than past cabinets.” This is always the top response. In Diet interpellations, Prime Minister Abe constantly emphasizes that his cabinet is different from that in the DPJ era in that Abe’s cabinet has a strong record in terms of economic policies and economic recovery. He likely does this with public opinion in mind. Since the launch of the cabinet, support for the LDP has stayed at around 40%, creating a clear gap with the 4–11% support rate for the DPJ, the primary opposition party.
Terrorism and other crises also have a positive impact on the cabinet support ratings.
In the survey conducted on Jan. 8–11 this year, immediately after North Korea announced it had conducted a nuclear test, the cabinet support rate was up by 5 points. When the Islamic State (IS) extremist group released videos purporting to show IS beheading two Japanese men in January 2015, the cabinet support rate rose by 5 points to 58% in the February 2015 survey.
It seems that Japanese think that they “should support the current administration” if faced with a crisis. Looking at past years, the support rate for the Kan cabinet rose from 24% in the survey immediately before the Great East Japan Earthquake to 31% in the survey conducted in April 2011 after the natural disaster.
The economy is the key
There is one cause for concern, however. People definitely do not think highly of the economic policies that the administration presents as its core policies.
At the time of the launch of the cabinet which gave birth to Abenomics, over 50% of respondents said they “approved” of Abe’s economic policies. However, for the past half year less than 50% of people have said they approve of the prime minister’s economic policies. Moreover, people do not have a tangible sense of economic recovery under the Abe cabinet. Those saying that they have no tangible sense of an improvement in the economy has stayed at a high 70–80% level since the question was first asked in May 2013.
The relationship between having a tangible sense of economic recovery and supporting the cabinet was analyzed according to the political party supported, based on data for the most recent year. The cabinet support rate among those who support the LDP is very high whether or not they have a tangible sense of economic recovery. In contrast, the cabinet support rate among independents who do not have a tangible sense of economic recovery is a low 25%.
Amari was the mastermind behind Abenomics, and some are concerned about the abilities of Nobuteru Ishihara, who has been appointed as his successor. In the spot opinion poll, only 33% of respondents said that they “approve” of the appointment of Ishihara.
Since the start of the new year, stock prices have been fluctuating wildly in Japan. If people’s expectations for Abenomics weaken and people do not have a tangible sense of economic recovery, this may impact the cabinet support rate.
According to Aiji Tanaka, a professor (of political process) at Waseda University, “Prime Minister Abe is sensitive to public opinion and decides things quickly, as we saw in the scrapping of the plan for the new National Stadium and in the Japan-South Korea agreement on the comfort women issue. In the case of Amari’s resignation as well, I think voters saw Prime Minister Abe as having excellent crisis management skills, but that support is not solid. It is not inconceivable for the cabinet support rate to plummet suddenly if people think he is strong-arming the administration.”