June 19, 2017 / 1:40 AM / 3 months ago

Japan's Abe pledges to regain public trust as ratings slump

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference at the end of the G7 Summit in Taormina, Sicily, Italy, May 27, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentille

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his ratings battered by suspicion he helped a friend get favoured treatment for a business, and criticism that he used strong-arm tactics in parliament, vowed on Monday to regain the people’s trust.

Abe also said he would start thinking “carefully” about reshuffling his cabinet and key party posts to get the right people to push ahead with reforms.

But he did not confirm a Nikkei business daily report that he would do so in August or September, and would retain Finance Minister Taro Aso and ally Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshide Suga.

A slew of public opinion polls have showed support for Abe’s cabinet slumping sharply, with the Mainichi newspaper reporting that his ratings had fallen 10 points to 36 percent, the biggest drop since he took office in December 2012.

Non-support for Abe rose to 44 percent, the first time it surpassed the percentage of backers since October 2015, after parliament enacted controversial security laws expanding the scope for military activities overseas, the Mainichi said.

Last week, the education ministry unearthed documents that the opposition said suggested Abe wanted a new veterinary school run by a friend to be approved in a state-run special economic zone. The ministry had earlier said it could not find the documents but reopened the investigation under public pressure.

Abe has denied abusing his authority to benefit his friend. On Monday, he repeated that procedures had not been “distorted” but acknowledged the government needed to win back public trust.

“We must calmly explain each policy one by one so we can win the trust of Japanese citizens,” Abe told a news conference marking the end of parliament’s latest session on Sunday.

“I have renewed my determination to do so.”

‘ARROGANCE’

Opposition politicians and media have identified Abe’s friend as Kotaro Kake, the director of the Kake Educational Institution, which plans to open a veterinary department. The government has not approved new veterinary schools for decades because of concern about a glut of veterinarians.

Almost three-quarters of voters in the Mainichi survey were not convinced by the government’s insistence there was nothing wrong with the approval process.

The institution has said it had acted appropriately.

Voters were split over parliament’s enactment of a law to penalise conspiracies to commit terrorism and other serious crimes.

But many expressed distaste for the ruling coalition’s tactics in rushing the bill through parliament.

The ruling bloc took the rare step of skipping a vote in committee and going directly to a full upper house session.

Experts said voters were irked at signs Abe was guilty of hubris after more than four years in office with no serious rivals, but for now they were betting he could ride out the storm.

“The public doesn’t like the arrogance, but they don’t like the alternatives even more than they don’t like Abe,” said Columbia University professor emeritus Gerry Curtis.

Ruling Liberal Democratic Party support far outstripped that of the opposition Democratic Party, the polls showed.

Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel

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