Swift decisiveness lifts Abe's ratings

A nationwide poll conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun shows the Abe administration, three years after its inauguration, is maintaining approval ratings higher than any other administration in recent years. So far the resignation of economic revitalisation minister Akira Amari due to allegations of accepting illegal donations has had no effect on the administration's popularity.

Whether the administration can maintain its high approval ratings up until this summer's House of Councillors election will likely depend on whether it can turn economic recovery into an indisputable reality.

Damage control skills are one reason there have been high approval ratings for the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which was launched in December 2012. In an urgent poll conducted Jan. 30-31, the approval rating held roughly steady at 56 per cent, exceeding by far the disapproval rating of 34 per cent. As many as 70 per cent of respondents felt Amari's resignation was "a matter of course," while more than half of the respondents, or 57 per cent, viewed Abe's response as "appropriate."

Amari's quick resignation, coming just one week after the allegations were reported in the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, seems to have kept criticism of the administration from spreading. The presence of certain unnatural elements in how the allegations surfaced also helped retain the approval rating.

The Abe administration is marked by a resilience that enables it to bounce back, even when its approval ratings take a dive.

When the Law on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets was passed in December 2013, the administration's approval rating fell by nine percentage points from the previous poll to 55 per cent, but by January 2014 it had already recovered by seven points.

In July 2014, when the Cabinet approved the limited exercise of the right of collective self-defence, the approval rating fell again, this time by nine points to 48 per cent. However, when the Cabinet was reshuffled in September and the number of female members increased to five, its rating shot back up by 13 points.

When the security-related laws were passed in September 2015, the administration's approval rating dropped to 41 per cent - the lowest since its inauguration - but in October, after the Cabinet was again reshuffled, the rating was back up to 46 per cent.

The administration's ability to bounce back in approval ratings may reflect a positive public perception of Abe's decisive political leadership, as shown by his reaching a broad accord on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and concluding an agreement with South Korea over the "comfort women" issue.

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Emphasis on achievements

The high support for the Abe administration can be seen as the flip side of public disillusionment with the Democratic Party of Japan administrations that were in power for more than three years. When people who approve of the Abe administration were asked for a reason, the top reply - consistently at about 40 per cent - has been "it's better than the previous administrations."

When responding to questions in Diet sessions, Abe frequently emphasizes his economic policy, the economic recovery and other achievements that set his administration apart from the DPJ period. Abe is probably keeping polling results like these in mind.

Since the inauguration of the Abe administration, the Liberal Democratic Party has also consistently enjoyed approval ratings around 40 per cent, much higher than the figures of 4 per cent to 11 per cent for the DPJ, the largest opposition party.

Crises such as terrorist attacks have also boosted the administration's approval ratings.

A poll carried out on Jan. 8-10 this year, immediately after North Korea announced it had conducted a nuclear test, showed a five-percentage point increase in the approval rating. In a poll conducted in February 2015 - after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militant group released video images in January purporting to show the murder of two Japanese men - the Abe administration's approval rating rose by five points to 58 per cent.

When faced with a crisis, Japanese people seem to operate on the principle that they should support the current administration. One example of this came after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake: A poll conducted that month shortly before the disaster showed the administration of then Prime Minister Naoto Kan had an approval rating of 24 per cent, but the figure rose to 31 per cent in a poll the following month.

Economy is key

However, there are grounds for concern because respondents' evaluations are not particularly high in the area of economic policy - which the government considers most important.

At the time the administration was inaugurated and the Abenomics economic policy package was launched, more than half of respondents said they had a "positive opinion" of the policy. Over the last six months, however, that number has consistently remained below 50 per cent. They hardly feel an economic recovery is under way.

Since May 2013, when the Yomiuri polls began asking about economic recovery, the share of people responding that they could not sense any recovery under the Abe administration has remained stubbornly high, in the range of 70-80 per cent.

When the relationship between respondents' sense of an economic recovery and their support for the administration over the last year is analysed by party, LDP supporters have shown extremely strong support for the administration regardless of whether they themselves feel an economic recovery. In contrast, the approval rating has been low, at 25 per cent, among people uncommitted to specific parties and who do not feel there has been a recovery.

There are also signs of apprehension regarding the capabilities of Nobuteru Ishihara, the successor to Amari, who was the "quarterback" of Abenomics. In the urgent poll, only 33 per cent of respondents replied they had "a positive opinion" of Ishihara's appointment.

Stock prices in Japan have been volatile since the beginning of the year. If the public's expectations decline regarding Abenomics and recovery continues to be unfelt, this might have an impact on the administration's approval ratings.

Waseda University Prof. Aiji Tanaka, who specializes in political process theory, said: "Abe is sensitive to public opinion and quick in making decisions, as seen in his scrapping of the design plan for the new National Stadium and reaching an agreement with South Korea on the so-called comfort women issue. It may be that voters took Amari's resignation as one more example of an excellent capacity for crisis management."

However, Tanaka added: "Abe's support is not firm. If he's seen as governing autocratically, then his approval ratings might well nosedive."