Thursday, June 7, 2007

TOKYO — With his approval ratings sinking, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is embroiled in political and pension scandals and his Cabinet minister’s suicide.

Before heading to Heiligendamm, Germany, where he is attending the Group of Eight summit, Mr. Abe announced a plan to cut worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions in half by 2050. The prime minister, however, may need to prepare for a more impending firestorm: the upper-house elections next month.

Mr. Abe took office in September with popularity ratings of about 70 percent, but that number has steadily declined. An opinion poll released last week by the major daily Asahi Shimbun found that Mr. Abe’s approval rating hit a record 30 percent, while his disapproval rating reached a record 49 percent. Unlike his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, Mr. Abe has failed to attract independent voters.

Analysts attributed the drop to Mr. Abe’s weak leadership and to his handling of a string of political, financial and pension scandals.

In late May, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka, who was accused of bid-rigging and misuse of public funds, hanged himself before he was to face questioning in parliament. Mr. Abe consistently defended the minister while the opposition parties asked him to fulfill his responsibilities to make a full explanation.

“The responsibility of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who appointed Mr. Matsuoka as Cabinet minister and who defended him after suspicions were pressed, is not small,” the conservative Sankei, a paper usually sympathetic to Mr. Abe, said in an editorial. “This is a major blow to the Cabinet with upper-house elections around the corner.”

The public also was angered by the health ministry’s loss of records related to about 50 million pension cases. The beleaguered ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (LPD) and New Komeito steamrolled a pair of bills intended to resolve the problem.

Akikazu Hashimoto, a senior research associate at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, said, “The pension scandal has only begun.”

“I would say that is a state crime,” said Mr. Hashimoto, who is a visiting professor at J.F. Oberlin University. The scandal “exposed the vulnerability of Japan’s bureaucracy and the fragility of its democracy, which has experienced virtually no transfer of power.”

Mr. Abe and some LDP members blamed Naoto Kan, former president of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, for the disappearance of the records because Mr. Kan once served as a health minister. Even other LDP members criticized the deflection of blame.

“It is the ruling LDP that had the responsibility to supervise the ministry,” Mr. Hashimoto said. “Mr. Abe lacks academic ability and the qualities of a leader.”

Meanwhile, the scandals have continued to unfold. On Wednesday, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa said in parliament that the Social Insurance Agency has yet to enter 14.3 million pension cases into its computer system.

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