Japan’s Abe gets imperial bump as support surges ahead of vote

TOKYO • Japanese Prime Minister (PM) Shinzo Abe’s support surged after the country’s first imperial abdication and accession in two centuries — a highly watched event fanning national pride that boosted his standing ahead of a July upper house election.

A poll carried out by the Nikkei newspaper during the weekend found 55% of respondents supported Abe’s Cabinet, up seven percentage points on the previous survey in late March.

A separate poll by TV news network JNN found support at 57.4%, up four percentage points on the previous month.

But Abe, who played a prominent role in the April 30 abdication ceremonies of former Emperor Akihito and the May 1 ascension of Emperor Naruhito, runs the slight risk of public sentiment souring ahead of the upper house vote with the polls showing weak support for his main economic policies and his plan to hike the sales tax in October.

Asked whether they felt any actual benefit from his signature policy programme dubbed “Abenomics”, 87% of respondents to the JNN poll said they didn’t.

The Nikkei poll showed 57% of respondents opposed hiking the sales tax to 10% from the current 8%, a policy aimed at taming Japan’s ballooning debt.

But with no major challengers on the horizon in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Opposition in disarray, Abe is set to become the country’s longest-serving PM — a milestone he would reach in November.

If he can keep the strong public approval, it could prompt him to call a lower house election to coincide with the upper house election.

Victory in both would probably strengthen calls for him to stay on as party leader for an unprecedented fourth-straight term.

The Nikkei poll showed 23% of respondents favoured Abe as the next PM, equal with the long-time favourite, Shinjiro Koizumi, 38, and the most prominent member of the LDP’s new guard.

Koizumi remained more popular among female respondents, the Nikkei said.

Abe may benefit from a continuing series of high-profile events this year, including a state visit by US President Donald Trump this month and Japan’s hosting of the Group of 20 summit meeting in June. Abe has also floated a highly risky summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with respondents in the Nikkei poll about equally divided on whether he should pursue a meeting or not. — Bloomberg