TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) – Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assassination was expected to unite a nation in shock. Instead, it exposed embarrassing ties between the ruling party and the Unification Church, leading to a sharp fall in public support for the current leader and possibly threatening his grip on power.
The approval rating for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida plunged 16 percentage points from about a month ago to 36 per cent in a Mainichi newspaper poll published on Monday (Aug 22), the lowest since he took power in October.
A majority of respondents to the poll said they saw relations between his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the church, whose founder Moon Sun-myung was convicted in the US of tax evasion, as problematic.
“The fact that politicians had very deep ties with this cultish religion came as a surprise to the public,” said Yuichi Kodama, chief economist at the Meiji Yasuda Research Institute. “This has also given off a creepy impression, and that’s led to a decline in approval ratings.”
There may not be an easy fix for Mr Kishida, who is pursuing what he calls “New Capitalism” – policies aimed at boosting wages and better redistributing wealth. Kishida doesn’t need to face a national election for three years after the LDP scored a victory in races for the upper house of parliament in July.
But a further decline in support would raise concerns of a return to Japan’s revolving-door leadership, seen between 2006 and 2012 when the Topix index slumped 45 per cent compared with a 2 per cent dip in the MSCI World Index.
“The fall in support came just as there were expectations that a ‘golden three years’ would allow him to embark on more medium and long-term challenges. If this situation continues, there’s a concern of a declining ability to focus on growth strategies,” said Tomoya Suzuki, a researcher at the NLI Research Institute.
Ties between the LDP and the South Korea-based church, best known for its mass weddings and whose followers are derisively called Moonies, came into focus after Abe was fatally shot while campaigning for the LDP in July. The man arrested for the murder has been quoted by police as saying he was motivated by a perceived connection between Abe and the church, which he blamed for his family’s financial ruin.
After revelations of ties between multiple LDP politicians and the church, Mr Kishida reshuffled government in an attempt to clean up its image. But he placed several members with ties to the church in cabinet posts and in party executive positions – including LDP policy chief Koichi Hagiuda, who recently acknowledged visiting a Unification Church-linked facility in June along with Ms Akiko Ikuina, a former pop star and LDP newcomer.
Another reshuffle could rankle LDP members and raise doubts about Mr Kishida’s leadership among a public questioning his decision-making. Meanwhile, the problem has been snowballing with new revelations involving the LDP and the church, including lawmakers giving speeches at the group’s events and church members helping during election campaigns.
National public broadcaster NHK recently said its investigation showed that about 40 per cent of 73 ministers, state ministers and parliamentary vice ministers in the newly formed government had ties to the church or its associated groups.
Opposition parties are calling for an extraordinary session of parliament to look into the ties.
Mr Hagiuda told a news conference he never received money from the group, Kyodo News reported. Mr Kishida has said he has no connections that he knows of with the church, which has courted conservative politicians in several leading democracies around the world.