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Japan’s Shinzo Abe Is in a Dogfight For His Political Life Over a Favoritism Scandal

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was grilled by the nation’s Diet, or legislature, for a second day on Tuesday regarding allegations he helped a friend win approval for a private veterinary school.

Abe has denied any impropriety, though the scandal is the latest in a string of controversies that have prompted his approval ratings to sink to an unprecedented low of 26% before general elections next year, and may spell the end of a political career until now characterized as “Teflon.”

“This is an implosion,” says Prof. Jeffery Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan. “Below 30% is what they call the ‘death zone’ — only one Japanese Prime Minister in the post-war period has recovered from such a position.”

Abe and his aides are accused of helping Kotaro Kake, director of the Kake Gakuen Education Institution, gain permission for a new school despite widespread consensus it was not needed. (It would be the first new veterinary department approved in Japan for over half-a-century.)

On Monday, Abe told the Diet’s lower house: “I want to make it clear that [Kake] never approached me about creating a new veterinary department.”

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But it’s only the latest accusation of cronyism. In March, Abe faced separate accusations over an ultra-nationalist private school that allegedly purchased public land at an 80% discount. Abe’s wife served as “honorary principal” and a 1 million yen ($9,000) donation was allegedly made in the prime minister’s name, according to parliamentary testimony from the school’s Principal Yasunori Kagoike.

In June, Abe’s Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, a staunch right-winger considered an Abe protégé, was accused of helping to cover-up of documents detailing a worsening security situation during a peacekeeping operation in South Sudan that involved Japanese soldiers.

Abe is also under pressure since his signature “Abenomics” economic policy has not spurred the recovery many had hoped. Japan is still dogged by deflation while real-terms wages are only just beginning to inch up. “Abenomics has not boosted household incomes, has not improved wages, has not helped the lives of ordinary Japanese,” says Kingston.

Abe’s hawkish nationalist policies have energized his opponents. He intends to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, has already changed rules to allow Japanese troops to fight abroad, and earlier this year pushed through an anti-terror law despite serious concerns over civil liberties. (Of the 277 new crimes included is a curious prohibition on picking wild mushrooms.)

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Winning a third term in 2018 would make Abe Japan’s longest-serving post-war prime minister. However, his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered stunning defeats in recent local elections in Tokyo and Sendai, meaning many now see him as an electoral liability. A front-page story on the leading Yomiuri conservative newspaper recently said his government will not regain public trust “unless it overhauls its arrogant nature.”

Abe is clinging on and has pledged to shuffle his cabinet next month, hoping to buy himself some time over the summer to rebuild his position. In his favor is that the opposition is fractured and in disarray, with no other party polling higher than single digits. That means any successor would need to come from within his LDP — most likely Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida or former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba — though that would require Abe resigning or being pushed aside by party elders.

“Abe’s on the ropes but I’m not counting him out just yet,” says Kingston. “But people now think they’ve seen the real face of Abe — and they don’t like what they’ve seen.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com