Japan's Floundering Abe Fights for Floating Gas Station

A Japanese tanker, left, pumps free gas to an unidentified ship in the Indian Ocean. Japan's navy refuels U.S. and allied craft supporting the war in Afghanistan.
A Japanese tanker, left, pumps free gas to an unidentified ship in the Indian Ocean. Japan's navy refuels U.S. and allied craft supporting the war in Afghanistan. (Photos Courtesy Of Japanese Defense Ministry)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 8, 2007

TOKYO, Sept. 7 -- For the election-battered, scandal-plagued and competence-challenged government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it has come down to this: If he cannot keep a floating gas station open in the Indian Ocean, Abe may be finished as the leader of Japan.

The high-seas refueling operation has been Japan's principal contribution to the war in Afghanistan. Over the past six years, Japanese military tanker ships cruising far from home have pumped more than 127 million gallons of fuel, free of charge, much of it into U.S. warships hunting for terrorists and smugglers.

Yet in recent weeks the gas station has become a political cudgel. Emboldened by polls showing that about half of the Japanese public wants the fueling operation stopped, a surging opposition party has seized on the issue as a way of felling Abe, who has been in office less than a year.

The Democratic Party of Japan clobbered the prime minister's ruling party in a July election and took control of the upper house of the legislature. Forcing Abe to halt fuel deliveries would be a highly visible way for the opposition to demonstrate the prime minister's political infirmity to a public that, according to polls, already doubts his judgment on appointees and his administrative competence.

As they try to fight back, Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party are hobbled by low poll numbers and prickly domestic problems of their own creation.

A champion of strong ties between Japan and the United States, Abe argues that giving fuel to Americans and other allies shows the world that Japan is a reliable partner in fighting terrorism. "We must do everything we can to somehow continue this operation that is regarded highly by the international community," he said this week.

These are bumpy times, though, for Japan's traditionally close relationship with the United States. Polls show the growing unpopularity of the Bush administration, of its war in Iraq and of a U.S.-Japan tie that is widely perceived as one of master and servant.

Then there are the seemingly endless scandals in Abe's government. Since his election last September, he has been forced to replace five cabinet members.

He has found it especially hard to hold on to a minister of agriculture. One killed himself in May after allegations that he had illegally used public funds. Another resigned in August in an unrelated scandal. A third, named in late August after a cabinet reshuffle intended to show that Abe was finally getting serious about governing, lasted a week before questionable use of public money forced him to quit.

There are also questions about Abe's competence. He has struggled to restore public confidence in the government since it was revealed last spring that more than 50 million pension records had been misfiled. Rural voters, the ruling party's traditional base, have also expressed a sense of abandonment as their economic well-being slipped in recent years.

Taken together, analysts say, those problems have put the Liberal Democratic Party -- which has dominated postwar Japanese politics -- in an unprecedentedly weak position. The Democratic Party is demanding that Abe call an early general election, which polls suggest his party would lose.

Traditionally, prime ministers here have resigned after the kind of humiliating defeat Abe endured in July, but he has insisted on staying in office.

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