Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday, September 28, dissolved the Lower House of the Parliament ahead of a snap election.
The move to seek a fresh mandate was taken as support for the Abe Cabinet was on the upswing, largely attributed to the government’s response to the threat of North Korea’s repeated nuclear tests and missile launches.
The general election will be scheduled for October 22nd.
The election may increase support for the government, although the ruling party now faces a new challenger in the form of Party of Hope led by popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. Other opposition parties, including the Democratic Party (DPJ), appear to lean toward joining forces with the fledgling conservative party.
Given that the cause of the July slump in Cabinet approval ratings was “Distrust of the Prime Minister,” members of the administration staff are now cautious with the ongoing alliance building by Koike.
On September 19, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a press conference: “As the government, we endeavor to produce solid results to gain the trust of the public, while also listening to the voice of the people. We will try in earnest to guarantee the safety and security of the Japanese people and prioritize the nation’s economy.”
Suga made the remarks when the results from a joint Sankei Shimbun-FNN opinion poll was released. The poll, conducted September 16-17th, placed support for the Cabinet at 50.3%.
Before this, the last time support reached 50% was in May, or four months ago.
The favorable public opinion towards the Abe administration was fostered by its response to the North Korean situation. After the third Abe Cabinet reshuffle of August 3rd, North Korea revealed plans to launch missiles seawards of United States territory Guam, and has twice launched ballistic missiles passing over Hokkaido, on August 29th and September 15th. On September 3rd, North Korea brazenly carried out its 6th nuclear test.
Tensions on the peninsula have reached an all-time high. As Suga said, “It is the most critical situation of the post-war era.”
In the public opinion poll, respondents who said they “felt” the threat of North Korea reached 84.7%. 48.3% of respondents said that they were “impressed” by the Abe Cabinet’s response to the North Korean situation, surpassing those who were “unimpressed” (44.1%).
Those “impressed’ by the Prime Minister reached 56.2%, clearly surpassing those 37.7% who were “unimpressed.”
The results of the July poll regarding the second Abe Cabinet was a stark improvement from December 2012, when it got a record low of 34.7% in public support. That poll nearly five years ago also saw the number of respondents “unimpressed” (48.4%) with the Prime Minister surpass those who were impressed (45.6%).
The Prime Minister’s response to the Kake Gakuen veterinary faculty issue triggered July’s rapid decline in approval ratings. His attitude towards claims of favorable treatment for the school’s chief director, who was a friend of the Prime Minister, garnered disapproval from voters. Abe initially and repeatedly responded to the issue bullishly, and the way he answered the opposition’s jeers struck some as arrogant.
Furthermore, the media repeatedly brought up his response he made to jeers during a speech in the Tokyo Municipal election of July: “We mustn’t let ourselves be beaten by the likes of these.”
Scandals involving Cabinet and Parliament members also piled up, contributing to the rapid decrease in ratings.
Public opinion is fickle, however. While it may cast a cloud over the Prime Minister’s “number one” position, trends for the “most suitable person for prime minister” are also changing.
How to Win the Voters Back
In the Sankei-FNN joint public opinion poll of July, it was Shigeru Ishiba, former secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and critic of the government’s response to the Kake Gakuen issue, who played counterweight to the Prime Minister. Ishiba was voted number one (20.4%), while Abe came in second (19.7%).
So what is it that the public are looking at? Of particular interest in this poll is that while support from men is steady at 57.4%, support from women only reached 43.6%, with disapproval ratings running high at 44.0%.
When considered according to age, the lowest level of approval from women was at 38.6% from women in their 40’s. There was no age group in which approval reached 50%. For those aged 10-30 years old, and 60 years and over, disapproval ratings were higher than approval ratings.
Considering the crushing defeat of the LDP in the Tokyo Municipal election, LDP members with Cabinet experience who are keen to separate themselves from the Prime Minister warn: “It is the women’s vote which decides the outcome of the election. In the Tokyo Municipal election, many women voters moved away from supporting the LDP. It will be difficult to win these voters back.”
If the Prime Minister is not able to regain the trust of women voters in the main, then the current approval ratings would become a temporary “lull before the storm.”
If the opposition party were to pursue the “insufficient explanation” argument regarding the Kake Gakuen issue in the election campaign, then the Prime Minister is likely to find the October election and the subsequent government administration to be difficult to navigate.
Shinichi Kiyomiya is a staff writer of the Sankei Shimbun Political News department.
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)