Japan’s embattled PM Abe hits back over scandal as support plunges

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, bottom, raises his hand to answer questions during a budget committee session of the upper house in Tokyo on Monday, March 19. Abe hit back at critics over a favoritism and cover-up scandal that has seen his popularity suffer. (AFP)
Updated 19 March 2018
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Japan’s embattled PM Abe hits back over scandal as support plunges

TOKYO: Japan’s embattled prime minister hit back at critics on Monday over a favoritism and cover-up scandal that has seen his popularity plunge and loosened his iron grip on power.
In a hotly awaited statement in parliament, Shinzo Abe denied he had ordered bureaucrats to alter documents relating to a controversial land sale as he comes under mounting pressure over the affair.
“I have never ordered changes,” he said.
The scandal surrounds the 2016 sale of state-owned land to a nationalist operator of schools who claims ties to Abe and his wife Akie.
The sale was clinched at a price well below market value amid allegations that the high-level connections helped grease the deal.
The affair emerged early last year, but resurfaced after the revelation that finance ministry documents related to the sale had been changed.
Versions of the original and doctored documents made public by opposition lawmakers appeared to show passing references to Abe were deleted, along with several references to his wife Akie and Finance Minister Taro Aso.
Aso has blamed the alterations on “some staff members” at the ministry.
But Jiro Yamaguchi, a politics professor at Hosei University in Tokyo, said the public was “not at all convinced” by this explanation.
“Why was the land sold at a discount price? Without any political pressure, this could never happen, and voters are angry about it,” said Yamaguchi.
The prime minister repeated an apology, saying he “keenly felt” his responsibility over the scandal that has “shaken people’s confidence in government administration.”
The affair is hitting Abe’s ratings hard, with a new poll in the Asahi Shimbun showing public support nosediving by 13 percentage points from the previous month to 31 percent.
The figure is the lowest approval rating for Abe in the poll since his return to power at the end of 2012.
Another survey suggested that for the first time since before a general election in October, more people disapproved of the cabinet’s performance than approved.
The scandal is harming Abe’s hopes of winning re-election as head of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September, which would make him Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
Political analyst Yamaguchi said that if support continues to tumble, LDP members might begin to feel Abe is a liability ahead of upper house elections next year.
Abe insisted that, even before the alterations, the documents showed that his hands were clean.
“If you look at the documents before the alterations, it is clear there is no evidence that I or my wife was involved in the sale of the national land or approval of the school.”
But the opposition is demanding that Abe fall on his sword over the issue.
“This is a problem that is worthy of the resignation of the whole of the cabinet,” opposition upper house member Shoji Namba demanded as he questioned Abe over the scandal.
Masayuki Kubota, chief strategist at Rakuten Securities, noted there were “growing voices” calling for Abe and Aso to be held responsible.
“Various polls have shown his cabinet approval rating plunging and the stable base of the Abe administration is wobbling,” he said in a commentary.
The political uncertainty was beginning to take its toll on the Japanese stock market.
The benchmark Nikkei 225 index fell 0.90 percent or 195.61 points to close at 21,480.90 Monday, while the broader Topix index was down 0.96 percent or 16.66 points at 1,719.97.
Toshikazu Horiuchi, a broker at IwaiCosmo Securities, said the affair was expected to continue hurting market sentiment for now, saying: “It’s unlikely we will see the scandal disappearing tomorrow.”


France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

Updated 19 May 2019
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France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

  • His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent
  • In his country, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron sees himself as Europe’s savior and next week’s European Parliament elections as a make-or-break moment for the beleaguered European Union.
But Macron is no longer the fresh-faced force who marched into a surprising presidential victory to the rousing EU anthem two years ago. His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent. And at home, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies.
Macron wanted the May 23-26 European Parliament elections to be the key moment that he could push his ambitions for a stronger Europe — but instead, nationalists and populists who criticized the 28-nation bloc could achieve unprecedented success.
They argue that EU leaders have failed to manage migration into the continent and remain out of touch with ordinary workers’ concerns.
“We have a crisis of the European Union. This is a matter of fact. Everywhere in Europe, when you look at the past five to six years, in our country but in a lot of countries, all the extremes, extreme-rights, are increasing,” Macron said Thursday, making an unexpected appeal for European unity on the sidelines of a technology trade show.
“On currency, on digital, on climate action, we need more Europe,” he said. “I want the EU to be more protective of our borders regarding migration, terrorism and so on, but I think if you fragment Europe, there is no chance you have a stronger Europe.”
In person, the 41-year-old Macron comes across as strikingly, sincerely European. A political centrist, he’s at ease quoting Greek playwrights, German thinkers or British economists. France’s youngest president grew up with the EU and has been using the shared European euro currency his whole adult life, and sees it as Europe’s only chance to stay in the global economic game.
Macron has already visited 20 of the EU’s 28 countries in his two years in office, and while he acknowledges the EU’s problems, he wants to fix the bloc — not disassemble it.
Macron won the 2017 presidential election over France’s far-right, anti-immigration party leader Marine Le Pen on a pledge to make Europe stronger to face global competition against the Unites States and China. Since then, he’s had to make compromises with other EU leaders — and clashed with some nations where populist parties govern, from Poland to neighboring Italy.
Four months after his election, Macron outlined his vision for Europe in a sweeping speech at Paris’ Sorbonne university, calling for a joint EU budget, shared military forces and harmonized taxes.
But with Brexit looming and nationalism rising, Macron has had to reconsider his ambitions. He called his political tactics with other EU leaders a “productive confrontation.”
“In Europe, what is expected from France is to clearly say what it wants, its goals, its ambitions, and then be able to build a compromise with Germany to move forward” with other European countries, Macron said last week.
Macron stressed that despite her initial reluctance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed last year to create a eurozone budget they hope will boost investment and provide a safety mechanism for the 19 nations using the euro currency.
In March, Macron sought to draw support for a Europe of “freedom, protection and progress” with a written call to voters in 28 countries to reject nationalist parties that “offer nothing.”
And he proposed to define a roadmap for the EU by the end of this year in a discussion with all member nations and a panel of European citizens.
“There will be disagreement, but is it better to have a static Europe or a Europe that advances, sometimes at different paces, and that is open to all?” he asked.
France and Germany are the two heavyweights in Europe, and Macron can also count on cooperation from pro-European governments of Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and others.
He has made a point, however, of not yet visiting Hungary or Poland, two nations led by populist leaders whom Macron accused last year of “lying” to their people about the EU.
France has also been entangled in a serious diplomatic crisis with Italy over migration into Europe. Italy’s anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has repeatedly criticized Macron and is backing his rival Le Pen’s National Rally party in the election this week that aims to fill the European parliament’s 751 seats.
Macron has little chance to repeat Europe-wide what he did in France: rip up the political map by building a powerful centrist movement that weakened the traditional left and right.
The campaign for Macron’s Republic on the Move party is being led by former European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau under a banner called “Renaissance.” The party wants to associate with the pro-market ALDE alliance to create new centrist group at the European Parliament.
But across the continent, the centrists are not expected to come out remotely on top but rank third or even lower behind the parliament’s traditional two biggest groups, the right-wing European People’s Party and the left-wing Socialists and Democrats group.
Even at home, Macron is far from certain of being able to claim victory in the European vote. Polls suggest his party will be among France’s top two vote-getters in the election, which takes place in France on May 26.
But its main rival, the far-right National Rally party, is determined to take revenge on Macron beating Le Pen so decisively in 2017.
Macron’s political opponents across the spectrum are calling on French voters to seize the European vote to reject his government’s policies.
While he won 64% of the presidential vote in 2017, French polls show that Macron’s popularity has been around half that for the past year.
It reached record lows when France’s yellow vest movement broke out last fall, demanding relief from high taxes and stagnant wages for French workers, then slightly rose as extensive violence during yellow vest protests, especially in Paris, dampened support for the movement’s cause.
Still, the yellow vests are not going away. New protests against Macron and his government are planned for the EU election day.