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Election win won't boost unpopular Shinzo Abe's ratings

  • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just won a parliamentary election, but he remains unpopular among voters
  • His approval ratings are expected to remain low, which will further complicate efforts to revise the pacifist constitution

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won a key parliamentary election despite broad unpopularity among voters. But the electoral triumph isn't expected to boost his ratings.

A lack of a strong opposition helped his ruling coalition government, led by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, retain its super majority in the lower house of parliament on Sunday. That's despite waning public appeal for the 63-year-old leader amid a string of scandals.

"This is a curious election, the LDP had a landslide with a prime minister who's quite unpopular," said Gerald Curtis, a political science professor at Columbia University. "The overwhelming opinion is that Abenomics has not been a great success but everything the opposition offers as an alternative would be much worse."

Only half of citizens endorsed Abe's job performance, according to a Gallup poll conducted between April and July. Not much has changed since: Around 59 percent of the public don't approve of Abe, local broadcaster NHK reported on Sunday. Meanwhile, a Kyodo survey conducted from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1 showed 46 percent of respondents disapproved of Abe's administration, versus the 40 percent who expressed support.

Sunday's victory "was not necessarily an endorsement of Abe personally," explained Tobias Harris, Japan vice president at advisory firm Teneo Intelligence. "If you talk to voters, there are a lot of people who are uneasy about the various influence-peddling allegations that came up over the past year."

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Brussels on July 6, 2017.
Yves Herman | Reuters
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Brussels on July 6, 2017.

In February, claims surfaced that Abe and first lady Akie Abe granted financial favors to an education group accused of promoting bigotry. In May, the LDP head was criticized for allegedly granting special concessions to another educational institution headed by a longtime friend. The prime minister has denied both assertions.

Incidents involving Abe's team haven't helped — former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada resigned in July over a cover-up involving Japanese troops in South Sudan.

Voter weariness is another factor weighing on the leader's popularity. A five-year reign colored by scandals and unpopular policies regarding nuclear energy and security laws is "exhausting in some ways and I think there's a sense of fatigue among the public," said Harris.

Support to remain weak

Sliding approval ratings were actually a key reason why Abe called for snap elections in the first place. But that isn't seen changing even after Sunday's landslide performance, which was underlined by Abe's tough stance on North Korea in addition to splintered opposition factions.

Chart courtesy of Danske Bank

"The elections have obviously distracted from the cronyism allegations but I think they will resurface in coming months and I would expect the Cabinet Office's approval rating to remain low," said Marcel Thieliant, Japan economist at Capital Economics. "As such, PM Abe will probably face a contender for LDP leadership in the upcoming elections in September, unlike in 2015 when he won uncontested."

Harris also said he expects public frustration to persist, noting that it will further complicate Tokyo's efforts to revise the pacifist constitution.

The move to strengthen Japan's dormant military is deeply controversial, so Abe is expected to move cautiously on that front.

"Many polls show that most voters are already opposed to Abe getting a third term, and he does not want to make himself appear as a political liability," said Scott Seaman, Asia director at consultancy Eurasia Group. "He might propose making a less controversial revision of some kind next year in an effort to soften the ground for more politically challenging changes later."