By MARI YAMAGUCHI
TOKYO (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was grilled by opposition lawmakers in parliament on Monday over a widening school land sale scandal linked to his wife, as his Cabinet’s approval ratings plunged to their lowest levels.
Opposition lawmakers renewed demands that Abe’s wife and top officials involved in the land sale be summoned to testify in parliament. Abe has denied wrongdoing.
Smoldering for a year, the scandal re-erupted last week after Finance Ministry officials acknowledged tampering with land deal documents, including deleting references to first lady Akie Abe, following a newspaper report in early March. The tampering is under criminal investigation by prosecutors.
On Monday, Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Tetsuro Fukuyama accused Abe of betraying parliament for nearly a year.
“The Abe government’s attitude is entirely called into question,” Fukuyama said.
Meanwhile, four media polls released Monday showed Cabinet approval ratings falling to the 30 percent range, the lowest since Abe took office in 2012. Outside the prime minister’s office, thousands of protesters have gathered almost every day, demanding that Abe step down.
The sharp drop in Abe’s popularity could endanger his chances for a third term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a three-year extension of his prime ministership. The LDP is due to hold a leadership vote in September.
A “yellow light” is blinking on Abe’s third term, the conservative Sankei newspaper, known for its support of Abe’s policies, said on its front page Monday.
The scandal stems from the 2016 sale of state land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen in Osaka at one-seventh of the appraised value with the alleged involvement of Akie Abe, who has said both she and her husband supported the school’s ultra-nationalistic philosophy of education.
Abe on Monday said his wife will step down from all honorary positions. She has also been criticized for appearing at public events while Abe refused to let her testify in parliament.
Ministry officials said the land deal documents were altered from late February to April last year at the instruction of the financial bureau, the ministry department in charge of state property transactions, mostly at its regional unit in Osaka.
Opposition lawmakers alleged that the tempering, which started soon after Abe stated in parliament in mid-February last year that he would step down if any proof of his or his wife’s involvement was found, might have been aimed at protecting Abe.
The head of the bureau resigned to take responsibility, and a second finance official in Osaka was found dead in an apparent suicide linked to the scandal.