By Junichiro Ishii and Hiroshi Kimijima
The approval rate of the Abe cabinet fell to its lowest since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to office at the end of 2012. Top administration officials aim to recoup support with economic measures. Some within the ruling party, however, view the prime minister’s actions as problematic. Support for the cabinet among those who support the ruling party is gradually falling. These polling results may affect Abe’s hold on power as he enters the final stretch of his administration.
In Asahi Shimbun’s opinion poll conducted May 23 and 24, approval of the Abe Cabinet fell to 29%, the lowest since its inauguration in 2012. The government’s response to the new coronavirus as well as criticism over the extension of the retirement age for head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office Hiromu Kurokawa, who resigned over playing mahjong for money, was a direct blow to the administration.
“The Public Prosecutor’s mahjong played a big role,” says a top official at the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei]. The official analyzed the polling results as “an explosion of public discontent” during the period of self-restraint. The view that Kantei-led management led to this situation is prevalent within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). A mid-level member of the Kishida faction says that the administration’s responses to PCR tests and economic measures were often “one step late,” and the poll results indicate an exploding geyser of “public discontent.”
Dissatisfaction within the LDP is also directed against Abe himself. Regarding the distribution of two cloth masks per household, Abe said in the May 25 press conference that the measure was “effective in suppressing the demand for masks.” A young LDP Diet member was critical of the difference in perception between Abe and the public, commenting, “Does [Abe] realize that many people are saying, ‘The masks only arrived just now?’”
A former Cabinet member said with respect to the new coronavirus measures, the public think Abe is “not dependable.” Reversal of the policy on the cash payment as well as press conferences where Abe seems to read from a script have the combined effect of seeming unsatisfactory compared with the performance of Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike.
In the May 25 press conference, Abe said of the fall in approval rate that he will not worry about each up and down in public opinion surveys, but will do his best to accomplish his mission.
The Abe administration has faced approval rate declines in the past, but the administration recovered by heightening expectations over diplomacy or the economy. A Kantei official says of the fall in approval rating: “It has happened before. It will recover.”
Nevertheless, the economic downturn due to the coronavirus outbreak is severe. There is a possibility of a second wave of infection. Diplomatic matters face opaque prospects. Some in the LDP are questioning the effectiveness of the usual means of propping up the approval rate. A mid-level LDP member says that up to now, the LDP was able to make the public think that diplomatic issues, such as the relationship with U.S. President Trump or the Northern Territories, “must be handled by Abe.” Now the member says that “there is no such issue.” The LDP member voiced concern over whether the economic measures in the supplementary budget can make up for the damage incurred by the economic downturn.
In the Asahi Shimbun’s opinion poll, support for the LDP fell to 26%, its lowest in the second Abe administration. The approval rate of the cabinet among LDP supporters, which had been over 80%, fell to 68%. The approval rate of the cabinet among Komeito supporters fell from 49% in April 2020 to 32%. The polling results show that Cabinet support is waning among supporters of the ruling parties.
Abe’s term as LDP President will end in the fall of 2021. Immediately following the end of his term, the House of Representatives will finish their terms. Declining support from ruling party supporters will possibly make the LDP more fluid. LDP Policy Research Council chairperson Fumio Kishida said in the May 25 press conference that “[the poll results] are due to the accumulation of various factors” and that he will “work towards gaining the public’s understanding [of the administration’s policies] with careful detailed explanations.” Former LDP secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba, who maintains a distance from Abe, told Asahi Shimbun that Abe has “not responded directly to matters that the public thinks are irregular.”