By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) – As Japan struggles to stem the spread of a coronavirus within its borders, critics are asking, “Where’s Abe?”
Shinzo Abe, 65, Japan’s longest serving prime minister, has failed to take the helm as the public face of the response to the virus, critics say, leaving the task largely to his health minister.
Now doubts about Abe’s leadership threaten to erode already sagging public support, with a newspaper survey at the weekend showing disapproval for his administration outweighing approval for the first time since July 2018.
That, in turn, could upset rosy scenarios where Abe presides over a successful Tokyo Olympics set to start in July, leads his party to an election victory and perhaps even wins a rare fourth term at the Sept. 2021 end of his tenure as ruling party leader.
“Where is the leadership?” asked Gerry Curtis, an expert in Japanese politics.
“Even now, he’s not out there, not talking to the public and mobilising people,” added Curtis, an emeritus professor at Columbia University. “I think this will hurt him the longer it goes on.”
Abe has weathered several rough spots since he returned to office in December 2012.
But his support, already dented by recent scandals, including a row over too many supporters invited to a pricey party to view cherry blossoms, fell 8.4 points to 36.2% in the conservative Sankei newspaper’s survey published at the weekend.
His non-approval rate rose 7.8 points to 46.7%.
Voters were split over the government’s response to the virus, with 85 percent saying they worried about the disease.
“Although the people’s anxiety is growing daily, he (Abe) hasn’t held a proper news conference,” said a Twitter user with the handle @yumidesu.
“In other words, if he appears more often, only a bad image will remain, so, to avoid that, he is appearing in public as little as possible.”
Japan has drawn heavy criticism for its handling of a virus outbreak on the U.K.-registered cruise ship Diamond Princess that caused 691 infections, killing four passengers, since the vessel docked near Tokyo on Feb. 3.
Concern has also grown as the tally of domestically-transmitted cases has swelled past 159, including one death.
The government unveiled measures on Tuesday to slow the pace of infections and deaths.
“We are at an extremely critical stage to bring about an early end to the spread of the virus,” said Abe, reading quickly from a document at a meeting on the measures, before leaving Health Minister Katsunobu Kato to explain them to reporters.
The steps include precautions such as working online from home, commuting to jobs at staggered times and asking organizers of events to weigh up plans carefully.
Some other countries are taking stiffer steps.
Italy, which emerged on Monday as a new frontier in the fight on the virus, has sealed off its worst affected towns, closed schools and halted the carnival in Venice.
U.S. President Donald Trump has asked Congress for $2.5 billion to fight the virus, although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decried those funds as being insufficient.
That compares to Japan’s figure of 10.3 billion yen ($92 million) allocated from budget reserves, although Jiji news agency reported further funding was being considered.
“I think he (Abe) is in denial,” said Koiichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University.
“They are trying to believe the most optimistic scenarios, even if they don’t really.”
Social media critics questioned why Abe did not close Japan’s borders to all Chinese visitors instead of just those from the central province of Hubei, whose capital Wuhan is the epicenter of the epidemic, and the eastern province of Zhejiang.
Abe has overseen a warming of ties with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, despite criticism from within his Liberal Democratic Party, and officials publicly say preparations are on track for an April visit by Xi.
Japan’s economy has also grown heavily reliant on Chinese tourists in recent years.
Some skeptics also suggested Japan was holding down the numbers of those tested to minimize the number of infections.
Maybe the Japanese government wants to hold the Tokyo Olympics so they try to hide the number of infected people. Shinzo Abe is good at hiding,” said a Twitter user going by the handle @shumi_wake.
Abe has made hosting the Olympics, which run until Aug. 9, a key goal of his administration. On Tuesday, Health Minister Kato said it was too early to talk about cancelling them.
Experts said the next few weeks will be crucial to show if Japan can stem the pace of virus spread. If not, patient numbers could surge to overwhelm the health system and hit the economy.
Japan’s economy shrank in the December quarter at its fastest pace in almost six years, hit by a rise in sales tax. That raises the risk of a recession as the virus chills activity.
“If the economy tanks and never gets a boost from the Olympics, it’s going to be catastrophic,” said Nakano.
(Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)