TOPICS : Shinzo Abe’s fall from grace

Shinzo Abe’s rapid fall from grace reflects a modern democratic phenomenon — the accelerating pace at which initially enthusiastic voters become disillusioned with new leaders. Angela Merkel in Germany is following a similar if less dramatic trajectory. Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy may travel the same road. Tony Blair had six years before things really began to go pear-shaped. Japan’s PM had little more than six months. Abe’s public approval ratings plunged from nearly 70% last September, when he was appointed by the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP), to 40% in February. Now he is down to 30% or less, about the same as the historically unpopular George Bush.

Supporters are arguing he will ignore precedent and soldier on, even if the LDP loses its majority in the upper house of parliament on Sunday. But according to a Yomiuri newspaper poll, in such circumstances 48% of voters believe he should stand down. “He is not obliged to resign even if the result is very bad [because the LDP still controls the lower house]. But whatever happens, I think his authority will be reduced,” said a senior official. Japan risked returning to the pre-Koizumi era of weak leaders unable to effect reforms, he said.

The reasons for Abe’s difficulties are not as obvious as might first appear. Nor will the underlying structural disconnections in Japanese political life suddenly be repaired by his ritual defenestration. At one level, the mere fact that the cool, detached — and popularly unelected — Abe is not Junichiro Koizumi, his charismatic predecessor, is often given as a reason for public disenchantment. There is even speculation that Koizumi could be redrafted. Internal opposition to the relatively young, inexperienced Abe among LDP elders is said to have further undermined him.

The standard charge sheet against the PM also includes the recent public furore over a bureaucratic pensions snafu and uncertainty about higher taxes and rising national debt. He stands accused of ignoring ordinary people’s economic concerns. But overall, the economy, ever a primary election issue, is doing consistently better than for many years, the senior official said.

Political scandals and corruption cases have increased public alienation. Turnout this weekend will likely be little above 50%. Only a third of voters under 30 will participate. And then there is the spreading conviction that the sclerotic government apparatus, is incapable of tackling the real challenges facing Japan — the declining national prosperity to result from an ageing population, a shrinking workforce, an expanding wealth gap, the ongoing failure to overhaul inefficient industries such as agriculture, and over-regulation and protectionism.

Abe, assuming he survives Sunday’s vote, is expected to purge his cabinet and relaunch his premiership. But his personal and political clout will be diminished. His enemies will be emboldened. And as Blair and others can testify, once an electorate has made up its mind about a leader, it is notoriously hard to shift. — The Guardian