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Abe Brushes Off School Scandals

SNA (Tokyo) — While it can hardly be said that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has given credible answers about his role in the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen school scandals, it is also increasingly apparent that the general public is willing to let him brush off these scandals and to get on with his policy agenda.

Even as the opposition parties continue to hammer away at the government in Diet debate, and as the Abe team, quite outrageously, refuses to allow key witnesses to testify, public opinion polls are consistently showing a slight rise in Abe Cabinet support levels to around 50%. This is quite a strong level for a prime minister who has been in power for a number of years.

More detailed polls tend to suggest that the Japanese people do not believe Abe’s explanations about the scandals and are inclined to believe that he operated corruptly. At the same time, however, this seems to be impacting his overall approval rating only marginally.

The single biggest factor lifting the Abe Cabinet would appear to be its handling of foreign relations, especially the North Korea crisis and the Trump Administration. Compared to the likely alternatives, the Abe Cabinet appears notably competent and sure-handed. Whatever tensions may lie behind the scenes, the ministers and the bureaucrats all seem to be rowing in the same direction, which increases the sense of confidence in the leader.

Also, despite his fundamentally hardline and ideological instincts, Abe continues to demonstrate a degree of pragmatism as well. For example, his decision to visit Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics opening ceremony was opposed by elements of his rightwing political base, and yet he went there anyway and shook hands with his host, the much more liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-In. The Japanese public has always shown its appreciation in the polling when Abe departs from his usual hard line.

Finally, the two-year period of modest but sustained economic growth would form a comfortable background for any government.

While Abe’s control of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has clearly slipped a notch or two since his school scandals emerged last year, he is now looking like a shoo-in for reelection as party president in September. His most serious rival, Fumio Kishida, has started sending signals that he may delay his leadership bid until 2021. Shigeru Ishiba will almost certainly challenge Abe, but he’s not getting much traction. Same goes for Seiko Noda.

Adding it all up, Shinzo Abe remains in firm command of the political world. None of his political rivals is anywhere close to being able to dislodge him. The scandals have tarnished the public estimation of their prime minister, but they are still behind his government, for the time being.

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