Abe support falls below 50 pct for first time amid secrecy drive

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Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's public support dropped below 50 percent for the first time amid a campaign to strengthen Japan's secrecy laws, a decline that risks eroding his political capital to enact economic reforms.

The cabinet's approval rating fell to 49 percent, according to a Nov. 30 to Dec. 1 survey by the Asahi newspaper, down 4 percentage points from a month earlier. It showed 50 percent of those surveyed opposed a bill passed by the Diet's lower house last week that boosts penalties for leaking confidential government information. The upper house may vote this week.

Unease over the bill accompanies an emergence of inflation in the world's third-largest economy that threatens to damage further Abe's public backing unless companies begin to raise base wages. The drop in support precedes action on the reforms that economists say would give businesses the biggest incentive to increase spending at home: freer labor laws and lower taxes.

"If the support rating continues to fall and touches 30 percent, past patterns show the government will collapse within a year," said Shogo Fujita, a strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Tokyo. At the same time, "the passage of the secrecy bill is seen as an indication that Abe is determined to take risks and push through reforms which may not be popular but necessary."

Public criticism of the secrecy bill heightened after Shigeru Ishiba, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, made remarks likening demonstrators opposing it to terrorists.

Prewar analogy

Yoshinori Kobayashi, a manga artist, called the secrecy bill little more than Abe's "machoism" in a column on the front page of the Asahi newspaper three days ago. He noted that the Peace Preservation Act of 1925, used to suppress dangerous thoughts, ultimately was used against ordinary people in Japan's prewar years and during World War II.

There are no specifics in the law, which means it can be used to hide whatever the government wishes to keep away from public light, said Mizuho Fukushima, a former leader of the Social Democratic Party for 10 years.

"In current form, the prime minister can decide by himself what constitutes a secret," said Fukushima on Nov. 14 at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. "Information is the currency of democracy."

Adding to Abe's challenges, the cabinet member in charge of the government's "growth strategy" to aid reflation and end two decades of economic stagnation was hospitalized. Economy Minister Akira Amari, 64, will stay in hospital for three to four days, according to an e-mailed statement by the Cabinet Office today. Details of his condition can't be disclosed, due to privacy, according to Amari's office.

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