Abe Cabinet embroiled in new scandal

ANOTHER SETBACK: Yet another in a string of scandals is forcing Shinzo Abe to shore up support ahead of upper house elections set for July 29


Mon, Jul 09, 2007 - Page 4

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday backed his farm minister over allegations of corruption as a new scandal loomed ahead of key elections.

Abe spoke out after reports that farm minister Norihiko Akagi, who only took up the position last month after his predecessor hanged himself, filed false financial statements.

"There's nothing wrong with the financial statements at issue," Abe told a debate program of the public broadcaster NHK.

"I believe the issue here will be solved if Mr. Akagi clearly explains his financial statements, in line with relevant laws," Abe said.

The opposition party leaders said in the same program that Akagi should resign unless he explained any dubious expenses.

"If there are no lies nor dubious expenses, he needs to explain everything with complete transparency," said Ichiro Ozawa, the president of the main opposition Democratic Party.

The Japanese business daily Nikkei and other media reported on Saturday that one of the minister's supporter groups was registered at his father's home and filed some ?90 million (US$737 million) in rent, utilities and other costs over the past 10 years.

However, Akagi's parents denied that their house in Ibaraki Prefecture was used as an office, and said they had not received any rent or utility payments.

In addition to his parents' house, the Mainichi Shinbun newspaper said Akagi also claimed that another political group operated out of his wife's parents' house and filed office expenses, even though the group has not been active in the past decade.

Akagi, grandson of a former farm minister, denied the news reports later on Saturday.

The scandal comes only weeks before the July 29 elections, and could exacerbate sliding public support for Abe.

Akagi became a farm minister after Toshikatsu Matsuoka committed suicide in late May also over a political fund scandal, in which Matsuoka claimed massive office costs but failed to show proof of his spending.

Since Abe became premier, two cabinet ministers have stepped down amid scandals and controversies, the latest one is Fumio Kyuma who resigned Tuesday as defense minister after remarks seen as justifying the World War II atomic bombings of Japan by the US.

Abe's public approval ratings have dropped to an all-time low of below 30 percent according to one newspaper poll last weekend.

Another poll published yesterday said that one in four people who voted for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the 2005 lower house election will not vote for it in the July 29 upper house election.

The poll was jointly conducted by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper and the University of Tokyo, and received answers from 1,540 people by postal mail during a month-long period to July 3.