Monday, May 28, 2007

The Polls Return to Tormenting the Abe Administration

Support for the Abe administration had bottomed out in March, and had been climbing back steadily since then. The economy continued humming along, new hiring was up, and the LDP-Komeito coalition government managed to pass legislation on education reform and constitutional amendment procedures, both issues dear to the prime minister's heart. It didn't hurt that the DPJ, the main opposition party, was seen as being uncompromising solely to serve political expediency. This in turn exposed serious divisions, strategic and tactical, within the DPJ leadership and their respective supporters. I was seriously beginning to rethink my view in March when the numbers seemed to be stabilizing that there would at best be a dead cat's bounce for the once beleaguered Mr. Abe.

And then from the national daily Nikkei, the news that "[t]he approval rating of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government plunged 12 points from April to a record low for his cabinet of 41%, according to the latest opinion poll conducted by Nikkei Inc. [between May 25-27]." Nikkei attributes this mainly to the new scandal over the national pension system and the lack of seriousness in dealing with the political financing scandal. But the political financing scandal has been around for quite some time now, and it had already become apparent that neither the LDP nor the opposition DPJ would be making much headway on this issue. I am a little skeptical that the latest development, a likely stalemate over the measures to be taken, had much of an effect on public perception of the Abe administration.

The public pension scandal is another animal. The revelation that the Social Security Agency, in yet another example of its bureaucratic bankruptcy, has lost a large chunk of the records of the premium payments and thus is depriving many subscribers of some or even all of their pension rights has stunned the public. The LDP is pushing stopgap legislation, but its effectiveness is in doubt.

Mr. Abe probably thinks he deserves a mulligan; he inherited the SSA mess from the five-year Koizumi administration, and the problems had been piling up long before that. The bad news for him is that he not only succeeded to the throne with Mr. Koizumi's blessing but also had been a key member of the Koizumi regime, holding down key cabinet, sub-cabinet and party posts throughout this period. Moreover, as his Beautiful Country shows, he regards the public pension system as an area in which he has some expertise. Unfortunately, he seems to lack a secure grasp of the system and its issues, and as good as suggests in his book that the system will take care of itself in a democracy. Also telling are the records of his day-to-day itinerary, which show that his main interests continue to lie in diplomacy and national security, and that economic issues are a secondary concern. He will not have an easy time to show that he is on top of the issues.

The fact that this scandal reached fever pitch just as the Nikkei took the poll suggests that there will be some clawback by Mr. Abe over time, assuming we've seen the extent of the problem. After all, the DPJ won't be able to come up with a satisfactory solution either. (There isn't one.) Still, this will ratchet down yet another notch the baseline support for the Abe administration. The LDP is trying to blame the public sector labor union for this, but this will not play as well as the blame game for the political financing scandal.

Many things can happen between now and the July Upper House elections (keep an eye on Shisaku and Observing Japan, among other worthy blogs, for regular updates and commentary), but the LDP are right to be scared right now. Seriously, they have to avoid this kind of surprise that will galvanize the non-aligned against it, as voting day draws nearer.

Addendum: Agriculture Minister Katsutoshi Matsuoka drawing renewed attention to his voracity, as chronicled by Observing Japan, hasn't helped Mr. Abe. But I still believe the sense of helplessness with the SSA hits closer to home and has accordingly been far more harmful.

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