With just under three months until the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will conduct a leadership election in which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to seek a third three-year term at the head of the LDP, the prime minister may finally be recovering from the significant hit he took earlier this year when allegations of influence peddling resurfaced and consumed much of the Diet’s attention. According to Sasakawa USA’s Japan Political Pulse ten-day moving average of opinion polls, over the course of June, the Abe government’s net average approval has risen from -14 at the start of the month to roughly 0 as of this week. This reflects the narrowing gap between disapproval and approval ratings in every poll, and in several cases the government’s net approval is positive for the first time since earlier this year, with the Nikkei Shimbun’s poll recording net approval as high as +10.
The internals of recent polls are even more bullish for Abe’s chances of winning a third term. For example, in the Nikkei poll, which was conducted 22-24 June, Abe’s support for a new term among all respondents was 30%; when limited to only LDP supporters, who accounted for 44% of the poll’s sample and will actually have a say in the election, his support for a third term rose to 52%, with Shinjiro Koizumi, who as a relatively junior Diet member is highly unlikely to run this year, in a distant second with 20%. In other words, none of the most likely challengers Abe could face in September – Shigeru Ishiba, Seiko Noda, and, possibly, Fumio Kishida – has gained support at Abe’s expense. Abe similarly enjoys 47% support among LDP supporters in the Mainichi Shimbun’s 23-24 June poll, compared with only 21% support among all respondents; the latter figure is still sufficient to give Abe the lead over Koizumi and Ishiba. Interestingly, in the 15-17 June Yomiuri Shimbun poll, Abe actually trails Koizumi among all respondents, 26% to Koizumi’s 28%, but this may reflect a smaller share of LDP supporters in Yomiuri’s sample (38%) compared with other polls in which LDP supporters are consistently more than 40% of the sample.
These poll numbers matter because under the LDP’s latest presidential election rules, party supporters will cast votes to determine the proportional distribution of a number of “electoral votes” equal to the number of LDP members of both houses of the Diet, in this election a total of 405. While Abe appears likely to win the votes of a majority of Diet members, he will also have to win convincingly in popular voting to avoid a runoff election. Thus, polls showing Abe with a majority or near majority among LDP supporters and none of his challengers closing the gap suggest that his prospects remain strong. That said, Koizumi’s popularity among both independents and LDP supporters suggest that if he were to throw his support behind Ishiba or another challenger, he could make the race tighter.
Despite healthier approval ratings, the public still has not reversed its opinion of Abe’s trustworthiness in light of the Kake and Moritomo Gakuen scandals.
It bears noting, however, that despite healthier approval ratings, the public still has not reversed its opinion of Abe’s trustworthiness in light of the Kake and Moritomo Gakuen scandals, which have continued to draw parliamentary and media scrutiny. While developments on the Korean peninsula and a lack of new findings regarding the alleged influence peddling have muted the intensity of public feelings regarding the scandals, overwhelming majorities remain unconvinced by the Abe administration’s explanations both for the Moritomo Gakuen land sale and related cover-up by the Ministry of Finance (MOF), and for the circumstances surrounding the government’s decision to grant Kake Gakuen a license to open a new veterinary college in Ehime Prefecture. In Nikkei’s poll, the same poll that recorded 52% approval for the Abe government, 75% of respondents said MOF’s decision to punish officials for altering documents related to the Moritomo Gakuen sale did not mean that the matter is settled. Meanwhile, 70% said they were unconvinced by denials of allegations in Ehime Prefecture documents that suggest that Abe discussed the veterinary school with his friend, Kake Gakuen chairman Shotaro Kake, as many as three years before the license was granted. In Mainichi’s poll, meanwhile, 60% think that Abe is responsible for both scandals. These figures are matched other June polls. In Asahi Shimbun’s 16-17 June poll, 79% said that MOF’s disciplinary measures do not settle the Moritomo case; 75% did not believe Abe’s denials of an earlier meeting with Kake; 61% thought Kake should be called for questioning by the Diet; and 57% thought that the Diet should strive to elucidate the truth in both cases. A 16-17 June Kyodo News poll found that nearly 79% think that MOF’s disciplinary measures did not settle the Moritomo Gakuen scandal. The upshot is that the Abe government’s support has recovered despite the public continuing to believe that the administration has not been forthright regarding either scandal. While this could leave Abe vulnerable to new revelations, it appears as if most LDP supporters have been willing to forgive Abe.
Consistent with earlier patterns, the Abe government’s support has recovered despite strong disapproval of its agenda for the current Diet session, which had been scheduled to end on 20 June but which the ruling parties extended to 22 July to give themselves more time to pass the government’s legislative priorities. Polls have consistently shown that strong majorities oppose the passage of the government’s two main legislative priorities, a bill that would introduce rules governing casino gambling at so-called “integrated resorts” and a package of workplace reforms that, among other things, would impose binding restrictions on working hours and exempt some high-paid, skilled workers from hourly pay. In Asahi’s June poll, only 17% said that the Diet should pass the casino legalization bill this session, compared with 73% who opposed its passage. In the more recent Nikkei poll, which asked whether respondents approve or disapprove of the bill itself, 53% disapproved of casino legalization and 33% approved. Workplace reform is slightly less unpopular, with smaller majorities or pluralities opposed; for example, in Mainichi, 43% disapproved of the work reform package, and 30% approved. Meanwhile, in Yomiuri’s poll, only 24% supported the Diet’s passage of work reform this session, while 58% opposed passage.
Abe also continues to benefit from the perception that there is no viable alternative within the LDP or among the opposition parties.
So, what accounts for Abe’s recovery in opinion polls despite continuing distrust of the prime minister himself? The June polls suggest it is the familiar patterns reasserting themselves: an appreciation for the stability Abe provides in an uncertain world. In the Nikkei poll, 37% of the government’s supporters cited its “feel for the wider world” and 36% its “sense of stability” as reasons for supporting the administration. Of course, Abe also continues to benefit from the perception that there is no viable alternative within the LDP or among the opposition parties: in Mainichi, 49% said they supported the government because there is “no other good person or party,” while in Asahi, 54% of supporters said they supported the government because it “appeared better than others.” In short, the public at large, and LDP voters in particularly, continue to view Abe as the safest pair of hands despite his brush with scandal. The popularity of “feel for the wider world” as a reason for backing the Abe government in the Nikkei poll suggests that for at least a portion of the public Abe can still be trusted to navigate Japan through a particularly difficult international environment, given the rapidly changing situation on the Korean peninsula and the potential for trade friction with the United States.
A forthcoming companion piece will look specifically at the state of Japanese public opinion following US President Donald Trump’s 12 June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.