September 12, 2017 / 3:40 AM / 2 years ago

Japan PM Abe's ratings regain 50 percent amid North Korea security jitters

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s support ratings have recovered to the 50 percent level, a poll released on Tuesday showed, helped by public jitters over North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests and by disarray in the main opposition party.

FILE PHOTO: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews the honour guard before a meeting with Japan Self-Defense Force's senior members at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo, Japan, September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

A September 8-10 survey by the Yomiuri newspaper put support for Abe’s administration at 50 percent, up 8 points from the previous month.

Abe’s support had sunk below 30 percent in some polls in July, battered by suspected cronyism scandals and perceptions among voters that he had become arrogant after more than four years in office.

His ratings improved slightly cabinet reshuffle in early August.

Since then, news has been dominated by rising regional tensions over North Korea’s ballistic missile tests, including one that flew over northern Japan. Abe has spoken to U.S. President Donald Trump by phone numerous times, seeking to demonstrate the U.S.-Japan alliance is firm.

Pyongyang last week carried out its sixth and biggest nuclear test and Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera warned more provocations could be in store after the U.N. Security Council stepped up sanctions, imposing a ban on the North’s textile exports and capping crude oil imports.

“Japan also wants to take leadership to change North Korea’s policies while coordinating closely with other countries,” Abe told reporters on Tuesday.

With parliament in recess, Abe was “able to use the ‘crisis’ in North Korea to monopolize the spotlight by getting the media to portray him as a strong leader,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University.

Japan’s opposition Democratic Party, meanwhile, failed to improve its ratings after the election last month of a new leader, former foreign minister Seiji Maehara.

The Democrats also face likely defections to an embryonic party that allies of popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, an ex-ruling party lawmaker, are trying to form.

Sixty percent of voters did not hold hopes for Maehara’s leadership compared to 33 percent who did. Support for his party languished at 5 percent versus 40 percent for Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, the Yomiuri said.

Reflecting Koike’s popularity, the yet-to-be-launched “Japan First” party, fared better, with 41 percent expressing hopes for the new group.

Whether Abe can maintain the gains in popularity remains to be seen. “The scandals have not gone away and in a couple of weeks, Abe will have to convene the Diet ... so the recovery in support levels may well turn out to be temporary,” Nakano said.

Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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