TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, seeking to soothe voter outrage over political corruption that contributed to a devastating election loss, sacked his scandal-tainted farm minister on Wednesday.
Politicians and analysts said the dismissal came too late to help improve the image of Abe, who has vowed to stay on despite the weekend drubbing that cost his coalition its majority in parliament’s upper house.
But with no appealing candidates to replace him and polls showing the public split on whether he should go, the wounded leader looked likely to limp along, although one possible successor, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, said he would seek the job if Abe quit.
Abe’s coalition has a huge majority in the more powerful lower house, so his job is safe as long as he has the backing of the ruling camp.
Abe accepted the resignation of Agriculture Minister Norihiko Akagi, who had been dogged by media reports over discrepancies in his political funding records since he was appointed in June. His predecessor committed suicide after another scandal.
“There were various reports about me in the media and this affected the election,” Akagi — the fourth minister to exit Abe’s cabinet — told reporters. “It is undeniable that this was one reason for the defeat of the ruling coalition.
“I apologize deeply.”
Abe came under fire during the campaign for defending Akagi and other gaffe-prone ministers, and some lawmakers from his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) said his move now was ill-timed.
Grilled by reporters over why he had fired Akagi but decided to stay himself, Abe replied: “I take the results of the election seriously, but we must not create a political vacuum.”
Criticized for packing his first cabinet with inexperienced cronies, Abe has pledged a new line-up but given no schedule.
Analysts doubted he would benefit from the sacking.
“It’s too late,” said Toru Umemoto, a foreign exchange strategist for Barclays Capital. “It’s reactive, not proactive.”
The prime minister may, however, take some comfort from the fact that his support rates haven’t plunged.
About 47 percent of respondents to a poll by the liberal Asahi newspaper said Abe should resign, while 40 percent wanted him to stay. The conservative Yomiuri newspaper found 44 percent supported Abe while 45 percent said he should go.
Abe’s approval rate ranged from 26 percent in the Asahi survey — the lowest since he took office 10 months ago — to 32 percent in the Yomiuri poll, down about five points.
Abe, now 52, took office promising to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution and restore traditional values — priorities that now appear out of synch with voters’ concerns about pocket-book issues such as pensions.
Perhaps even more telling was a Nikkei survey showing likely LDP successors to Abe impressed voters even less.
“If Abe says he won’t quit, no one can force him to go,” said independent commentator Hirotaka Futatsuki.
“They really have no alternatives.”
Opposition Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa topped a list of politicians seen by voters as suitable prime ministers, but with just 18 percent compared to 14 percent for Abe.
Abe’s predecessor, the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi, got 12 percent, but many analysts dismissed the notion that he might be tempted to make a comeback.
Aso, an outspoken hawk long considered a frontrunner to replace Abe, got just 5 percent, but said he was ready to make another run for the post if the LDP held a presidential election.
“We should support his decision, although there are various opinions within the party,” Aso told reporters in Manila, where he is attending an Asian foreign ministers’ gathering.
“If there is an election for LDP president, I have a will to run as I have run before. That’s what I have been saying.”
Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds, George Nishiyama and Elaine Lies in Tokyo and Teruaki Ueno in Manila