Shinzo Abe is on a tight rope

Dr Imran Khalid
Shinzo Abe is proving to be one of the truly different and atypical Prime Ministers of Japan in the recent history. Not just one, but there is a long list of attributes that make Shinzo Abe to stand out among the big club of Japanese Premiers. One, the strong and well-entrenched traditions of Japanese corporate culture, which entails the CEO of a Company to quit his/her job in case a scandal is erupted that directly or indirectly affects the future of the organization, has also drastically influenced the Japanese political system where the Prime Ministers are expected to leave the office even if a minor scandal is associated to his government. Another major tradition of Japanese political system is related to the decline in public approval ratings below the magical number of 30 per cent – Japanese Prime Minister is traditionally expected to tender his resignation if there is a drop in his public approval ratings below 30 per cent. These two major factors have practically produced so many frequent premature departures of the Japanese Premiers. But it seems that Shinzo Abe, despite being a strong advocate of preservation of traditional values in all spheres of Japanese political and social culture, is now seriously trying to break the tradition of “political self-sacrifice” in Japanese political system. Two long-running scandals have been hovering around him, but he is not showing any intention to leave the seat. Instead, he has become more active in the international arena to establish his credentials and stature as a world leader – his forthcoming long tour of Europe and the Middle East is a clear indication that he is not relenting to the mounting pressure from his detractors at home.
The two scandals, both involving schools, are related to his alleged nepotism and favouritism. The first case revolves around allegations that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe improperly wielded his influence to help a close friend by-pass bureaucratic red tape to facilitate him in getting regulatory approval to establish the veterinary medicine department in his university, Kake Gakuen, in southern Japan. The second scandal is also related to an educational institution, Moritomo Gakuen, an exceedingly traditional kindergarten that is quite popular among conservative politicians. It is alleged that in 2016, the owner was allotted a piece of land in Osaka, western Japan, from the national government at around 14 percent of the market value in order to set up an elementary school.
After the public outcry over this issue, the Finance Ministry, which was responsible for the deal, first tried to justify the low price due to toxic waste at the site, then the Finance Ministry officers claimed that transaction and documentation of the deal had not been kept properly. However, documents were found later and presented to Parliament where it was discovered that documents have been tampered to remove the name of Abe’s wife, who was once named the Honorary Principal of the school. Interestingly, despite such haunting scandals, the approval rating of Shinzo Abe and his cabinet stood at 44.9 percent in June, up 6 points from the previous month to surpass the disapproval rating for the first time since early March, the latest Kyodo News poll showed last month. Perhaps this kind of approval rating is the kind of reassurance that has emboldened Prime Minister Abe to keep his head high in the face of such scandals which are generally considered to be a big ticket to go home in the Japanese politics. Unlike his recent predecessors, who were most of the time compromise figures without even the clout to rein in their own party, Abe also has a much stronger control over different factions of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) within as well as outside the Diet.
Abe is a different kind of powerbroker, and he is using his long stay at the helm to increase his visibility in global political fabric. The close associates of Shinzo Abe have repeatedly made it clear through their direct and indirect gestures that Abe is here for a long game this time. Nepotism, influence-peddling and document-forging are perhaps very sensitive allegations by the standards of Japanese politics, but Abe seems to be little compelled to throw in the towel over these matters. His approval rating is still at a reasonably acceptable level and this is more than enough to him to think that Japanese voters are adjusting themselves to the realities of politics. Plus the positive impact of Abenomics policies is quite visible in different economic indicators e.g., 11.8 percent GDP growth, which had been stagnant for the last two decades, dropping of unemployment rate to 2.4 percent and incremental growth of workforce to 5 percent. In the last five years, Abe has been able to make Japan a leader of global free trade – a surprise move from the prime minister of a country that has always been notorious for its barriers to imports. Apart from assuming the leadership of the Asian Trans-Pacific Partnership, Abe has also spearheaded the free trade agreement with the European Union, perhaps the largest such bilateral trade agreement in history that amounts to almost 30 percent of global GDP. The string of successes in domestic and international affairs has heartened Abe to ignore the mounting pressure of scandals.
He has been successful enough to not only control the power brokers within his fractionated LDP but also influence the public opinion. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is planning to visit Europe and the Middle East in mid-July on a weeklong tour that will include a signing ceremony for a free trade deal between Japan and the European Union. He will also visit Iran and Saudi Arabia – clearly showing that he is very confident about his strong political base at home and now he is venturing outside the boundaries of the Asia-Pacific region to claim a share in global leadership. But a lot still depends upon the simmering scandals that have the potential to sabotage his personal ambitions to become the longest serving Prime Minister of Japan.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Karachi.

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