Published:  12:00 AM, 18 March 2017 Last Update: 01:03 AM, 18 March 2017

Abe battles scandal on two fronts

Shinzo Abe (L) and his wife Akie send off Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko boarding a special flight for their visit to the Vietnam and Thailand. -Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, now in a rare fifth year as leader, is battling scandals on two separate fronts as questions swirl about his ties to a nationalist school involved in a murky land deal and his defense minister faces calls to resign.

The scandals, which analysts say present the most serious crisis for Abe since he returned to office in 2012, appear likely to further erode his support rates, now about 50 percent. They are also denting his image as an invincible leader with a shot at becoming Japan's longest-serving premier, although so far most political experts are betting he can survive.

Abe's term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party president ends in 2018 but a rule change means he can run for a third three-year term, allowing him to remain premier as long as the LDP stays in power. The furore is distracting the government at a time when Japan needs to focus on economic talks with US President Donald Trump's administration and domestic issues including structural reforms to generate growth. In the latest twist to the ballooning school scandal, Japan's top spokesperson said on Friday Abe's wife, Akie, had not personally donated money to Moritomo Gakuen, a school operator in Osaka, western Japan.

-Reuters, Tokyo

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