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Shinzo Abe enters the turbulence zone

Will the Prime Minister of Japan keep his post?

Shinzo Abe enters the turbulence zone

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies
In his first term as prime minister in 2006-2007, Shinzo Abe ruled for about a year. Then, unable to keep the helm of power in his hands, he suddenly resigned, formally referring to a stomach illness. However, having come to power a second time in December 2012, Abe over the past five years has been quite confidently leading the country along the course he has set. He very successfully, although not without problems, implemented his economic policy, called "Abenomics", consistently built up the country's military potential and made Japan's presence in the international arena more significant. To strengthen his power, Abe successfully played the nuclear missile threat card from North Korea.
He is still full of the desire to achieve his ambitious goals such as the revision of the country's peaceful constitution, the clarification of the fate of compatriots kidnapped by the North Korean special services in 70-80 of the last century, and the settlement of a territorial dispute with Russia under conditions acceptable to Tokyo. However, in recent months, like eleven years ago, the Japanese leader found himself in a difficult situation due to a number of scandals that call into question his political future, including hopes for a third term in the prime minister's seat.

Since last year, two scandalous stories related to Abe's patronage of businessmen close to him in acquiring plots of state land at low prices by them, as well as an episode with the leadership of the armed forces concealing the truth about the presence of the Japanese peacekeeping contingent in Iraq in the early XNUMXs, has not abated. Contrary to clear evidence, Abe in every possible way denies the involvement of his and his wife in dishonest land deals. The scandals have already dealt a double blow to the reputation of Abe and his administration.

There is growing public outrage over the authorities' reaction to the emerging details of these scandals. In mid-April, 50 people marched in front of parliament. The protesters, many of them young people, carried banners calling Abe a "liar" and demanding his resignation. The prime minister received his third powerful blow in April, when the country's deputy finance minister was forced to step down on charges of sexual harassment. Because of the unsightly stories, the chair swayed under the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Taro Aso - Shinzo Abe's closest associate, also a former prime minister.

All this seriously undermined the political positions of Prime Minister Abe within the country and sharply reduced the rating of his support. Criticism within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which he leads, also intensified. A big disadvantage for Abe is the fact that this criticism becomes public ahead of the planned elections for the party chairman in September, who, given the LDP's dominance in both chambers of parliament, automatically becomes prime minister. If Abe got the post of head of the LDP in these elections, this would not only open the way for him to the third consecutive prime minister's term, but would also allow him to set a historical record for one politician in the chair of the country's leader for three consecutive terms, that is, nine years. But it got to the point that Abe's former political mentor in the party, retired Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, predicted in an April interview with the popular magazine Shukan Asahi that Abe would step down as early as June this year, when the current session of parliament ends.

Abe's departure could cause some political chaos in Japan, as potential contenders for the party leader's position will begin an intra-party battle for the post of party and government leader. Noting that Shinzo Abe is “in a danger zone,” Gerald Curtis, professor emeritus at Columbia University and author of several books on Japanese politics, said, “No one in the LDP wants to drown with Abe’s ship, but the problem is that they don’t know who they want to replace him with as captain. "

Recent public opinion polls have shown that Abe's support levels are approaching the lows that led to the resignation of past prime ministers. They for seven years before re-coming to power, Shinzo Abe changed in the rotating door mode almost every year. So, according to the poll of the news agency Nippon News Network, published on 15 April, Abe's rating fell to a record low of 26,7%.

Shinzo Abe's cabinet rating also continues to decline. According to a nationwide opinion poll conducted by the largest newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun in late March and early April, it fell to 42%, compared with 48% in a poll conducted on March 10-11. At the same time, the government's disapproval rate rose to 50%, up from 42% in the previous poll. Thus, the indicator of disapproval of the Cabinet for the first time this year exceeded the indicator of its support. 

The sharp decline in the level of support for the government, first of all, was affected by the drop in the rating of Abe himself. In the aforementioned public opinion poll, 54% of respondents said that they did not trust the Prime Minister. This share of mistrust is the largest since the formation of Shinzo Abe's cabinet following his return to power in December 2012.

In recent weeks, Abe has repeatedly stated in parliament and elsewhere that he will remain in office and work to restore public confidence in the government. However, this will not be easy. And it's not just the "bad stories" that are weighing down the ratings of Abe and his administration. Experts are increasingly saying that his economic reforms have fallen short of expectations. In particular, they point out that the fruits of Abenomics were mainly used by large corporations, and the common population did not feel their positive effect on themselves.

In the past months, the situation on the international scene was also unsuccessful for Abe. During the entire period of his second term, the leader of Japan positioned his country as the leader of the international front to fight for the complete and irreversible elimination of North Korea's nuclear missile potential. 
However, the latest developments have shown that this is far from the case. Moreover, fears are growing in Tokyo that Japan can stay away from the settlement of the situation on the Korean peninsula.

Japan received several foreign policy blows after the DPRK launched its so-called "charming offensive" during the February Winter Olympics in South Korea. The Japanese capital reacted with concern to the formation of a united team of the North and South of the Korean Peninsula at these games. Abe was also alarmed by the conciliatory policy towards Pyongyang by the current South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Japanese politicians are especially unhappy with the fact that Seoul played a key role as a mediator in organizing the upcoming summit of US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June this year. Relations between Tokyo and Seoul have also escalated in the wake of Moon Jae-in's demand to renegotiate the 2015 Comfort Women Agreement between South Korea and Japan.

The Abe administration was particularly shocked by the fact that the agreement on a meeting between Trump and Kim was reached "over Abe's head". As snow fell on his head, the sudden visit to Beijing of Kim Jong-un and his talks with the President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping. At a press conference, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono only confusedly stated that the government was collecting information about this visit. Tokyo is also very skeptical about the results of the historic meeting of the leaders of the two Koreas, which took place in late April.

To this can be added a number of troubles that Shinzo Abe received from his "American friend" - Donald Trump. Much to the displeasure of the Japanese prime minister, Trump pulled the United States out of the projected Trans-Pacific Partnership early in his presidency. Abe placed a high stake on this regional free trade agreement in carrying out Abenomics. During a conversation in Florida in April, Trump personally told his "Japanese friend" about the planned meeting with Kim Jong-un, and also refused to make an exception for Japan from the planned imposition of high import duties on steel and aluminum for a number of countries.

This course of events in Northeast Asia gave rise to the already forgotten term Japan passing. The expression originated in 1998, when former President Bill Clinton toured nine countries in Asia that ostentatiously excluded Japan. This happened at a time when Washington and other world capitals were showing increasing interest in a fast-growing China, while Japan, which was experiencing an economic crisis at the time, was seen as an increasingly less visible player in the international arena.

In an effort to enhance Japan's role and importance as an international player, Shinzo Abe embarked on intense diplomatic activity during his five years as prime minister. He has visited over 70 countries, many of them twice. On each of these trips, he carried the same message: Japan is back.  

Feeling a certain isolation in Northeast Asia, Abe started talking about the possibility of his own personal meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. In the event of its implementation, Abe intends to raise the issue of the "kidnapped Japanese", but apparently, he can hardly count on a positive attitude to this problem from Kim. And, in general, it is not yet known whether the North Korean leader will agree to meet with the leader of the country, which is viewed in Pyongyang as the "initiator" of the international campaign to exert severe pressure on the DPRK in order to force it to abandon its nuclear missile potential.

Shinzo Abe has been criticized at home, including in the bowels of the ruling LDP, and for his policy towards Russia. His ill-wishers point to the fact that despite the establishment of relations of "personal trust" with Russian President V. Putin and two dozen meetings with him, as well as the readiness to develop economic relations with Russia in the hope of getting concessions on the territorial issue, until Abe came close one iota to the solution of this problem. Doubts are also expressed that the Japanese leader will receive some dividends on this issue during his trip to Russia in the third decade of May.

In light of the growing criticism from all sides against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the LDP and society are actively discussing the issue of his successor as party and state leader. A poll published by the Asahi Shibun newspaper showed that former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba was the most popular candidate for the LDP leader, with 27% of respondents choosing him, compared with 22% who preferred Abe.

Among other candidates for the role of party leader appear former and current foreign ministers Fumio Kisida and Taro Kono, Interior Minister Seiko Noda, as well as a promising representative of the younger generation of politicians 37-year-old Shinjiro Koizumi is the son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koiduzkmi. True, the latter is still considered insufficiently mature functionary to take a place with the party-state rudder.  
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