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Defiant Abe hits back over scandal as support plunges

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Japan's embattled prime minister hit back at critics on Monday over a favouritism and cover-up scandal that has seen his popularity plunge and loosened his iron grip on power.

In a hotly awaited statement in parliament, Shinzo Abe denied he had ordered bureaucrats to alter documents relating to a controversial land sale as he comes under mounting pressure over the affair.

"I have never ordered changes," he said.

The scandal surrounds the 2016 sale of state-owned land to a nationalist operator of schools who claims ties to Abe and his wife Akie.

The sale was clinched at a price well below market value amid allegations that the high-level connections helped grease the deal.

The affair emerged early last year, but resurfaced after the revelation that finance ministry documents related to the sale had been changed.

Versions of the original and doctored documents made public by opposition lawmakers appeared to show passing references to Abe were deleted, along with several references to his wife Akie and Finance Minister Taro Aso.

Aso has blamed the alterations on "some staff members" at the ministry.

But Jiro Yamaguchi, a politics professor at Hosei University in Tokyo, said the public was "not at all convinced" by this explanation.

"Why was the land sold at a discount price? Without any political pressure, this could never happen, and voters are angry about it," said Yamaguchi.

The prime minister repeated an apology, saying he "keenly felt" his responsibility over the scandal that has "shaken people's confidence in government administration."

Abe 'wobbling'
The affair is hitting Abe's ratings hard, with a new poll in the Asahi Shimbun showing public support nosediving by 13 percentage points from the previous month to 31 percent.

The figure is the lowest approval rating for Abe in the poll since his return to power at the end of 2012.

Another survey suggested that for the first time since before a general election in October, more people disapproved of the cabinet's performance than approved.

The scandal is harming Abe's hopes of winning re-election as head of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September, which would make him Japan's longest-serving prime minister.

Political analyst Yamaguchi said that if support continues to tumble, LDP members might begin to feel Abe is a liability ahead of upper house elections next year.

Abe insisted that, even before the alterations, the documents showed that his hands were clean.

"If you look at the documents before the alterations, it is clear there is no evidence that I or my wife was involved in the sale of the national land or approval of the school."

But the opposition is demanding that Abe fall on his sword over the issue.

"This is a problem that is worthy of the resignation of the whole of the cabinet," opposition upper house member Shoji Namba demanded as he questioned Abe over the scandal.

Masayuki Kubota, chief strategist at Rakuten Securities, noted there were "growing voices" calling for Abe and Aso to be held responsible.

"Various polls have shown his cabinet approval rating plunging and the stable base of the Abe administration is wobbling," he said in a commentary.

The political uncertainty was beginning to take its toll on the Japanese stock market.

The benchmark Nikkei 225 index fell 0.90 percent or 195.61 points to close at 21,480.90 Monday, while the broader Topix index was down 0.96 percent or 16.66 points at 1,719.97.

Toshikazu Horiuchi, a broker at IwaiCosmo Securities, said the affair was expected to continue hurting market sentiment for now, saying: "It's unlikely we will see the scandal disappearing tomorrow."


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