Japan PM defends farm minister over scandal claims
Tokyo, July 8: Embattled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe defended his farm minister on Sunday against media allegations he had filed false financial statements, the latest blow to his ruling camp ahead of this month's national election.
But Abe, whose political fate could rest on the July 29 upper house poll, said Agricultural Minister Norihiko Akagi might have to explain further to allay public doubts after media reports he had booked millions of yen in expenses for offices at the homes of his own and his wife's parents which were no longer in use.
Abe's public support has already sunk below the critical 30 percent level, battered by voter outrage over bungled pension records and concern about political corruption.
Abe said during a series of televised debates that Akagi had done nothing wrong by booking expenses for more than one political office, and noted the farm minister had denied filing false records at a news conference yesterday.
''If he needs to explain further, of course he himself will and should explain,'' Abe said.
''If he explains properly, I think he can be convincing.'' Akagi, 48, was appointed in early June following the suicide in late May of then Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka, who had been under fire for a series of political funding scandals.
Opposition leaders urged Abe to order Akagi to explain more clearly and produce receipts for his spending, and even the prime minister's ruling coalition partner, New Komeito party leader Akihiro Ota, said a more thorough explanation was needed.
''There is nothing illegal, as far as I have heard,'' Ota said. ''But further explanation is needed.'' The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) elected Abe, 52, party president and hence prime minister last September in hopes he could lead the ruling camp to victory in the upper house poll.
But while Abe has won praise for improving chilly ties with China, he has suffered a series of blows on the domestic front.
His cabinet, already under fire for the mishandled pension records, took a fresh hit last week when Fumio Kyuma had to resign as defence minister for remarks that appeared to condone the 1945 US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In December, Abe's administrative reform minister had to quit after acknowledging that a group of political supporters had filed ''inappropriate'' financial statements.
The two ruling parties need to win a total of 64 of the 121 seats up for grabs to keep their majority in the 242-seat upper chamber. The New Komeito aims to get 13 seats.
In the latest sign of potential trouble for the ruling bloc, a survey published by the Asahi newspaper today showed one in four of those who voted for the LDP in the general election in 2005, when the party won a huge victory, planned to cast their ballots elsewhere in the upper house poll.
Main opposition Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa said on Sunday he would not only resign as party chief if the opposition parties failed to win a majority in the upper house, but would also retire from politics.
Abe declined to make a similar pledge.
''It is not a matter of numbers. The question is whether I can implement the policies I am aiming at,'' he said.
''If the time comes when I cannot implement those policies, my strength will be used up, but I am resolved to strive with all my might to the very end to implement the policies I have indicated.'' A loss in the upper house would not eject the ruling camp from government, since it retains a huge majority in the more powerful lower chamber. And if the ruling bloc falls short by a few seats, it can probably cobble together a majority by wooing independents or members of a tiny conservative party.
But a big loss would make it tough to enact laws, since bills other than the budget and treaties must be approved by both houses of parliament or, if rejected by the upper house, be sent back to the lower house and approved by a two-thirds majority, That situation would threaten policy paralysis and likely trigger calls for Abe to quit or even call a snap lower house election.