The public's approval rate for the Abe Cabinet slipped below the disapproval rate for the first time in a year, the latest Asahi Shimbun opinion poll shows.

The survey, conducted Dec. 21-22, also found that Shigeru Ishiba, former secretary-general of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and a critic of Abe, has emerged as the frontrunner for the next president of the LDP.

The disapproval rate for the Cabinet in December stood at 42 percent compared with an approval rate of 38 percent.

In the previous survey carried out Nov. 16-17, the approval rate for the Abe Cabinet was 44 percent and the disapproval rate was 36 percent.

This is the first time for the approval rate to dip below 40 percent since a survey by the newspaper in August 2018.

Abe’s failure to offer convincing answers to a flurry of questions surrounding tax-funded cherry blossom viewing parties hosted by the prime minister partly explained the sharp drop in the approval rating.

Seventy-four percent of respondents said Abe’s explanations were “insufficient,” while 13 percent viewed them as “sufficient.”

Among supporters of the LDP, 67 percent said Abe’s explanations were “insufficient.”

The survey also showed that 76 percent regarded as “unconvincing” the administration’s assertion that it cannot electronically restore a full list of participants to the cherry viewing events as the records were shredded. Thirteen percent found the explanation “convincing.”

The annual cherry blossom viewing events became the subject of intense debate due in part to allegations that many of Abe's supporters from his electoral constituency were invited at the expense of taxpayers.

Despite widespread dissatisfaction with the administration’s handling of the issue, 50 percent felt lawmakers do not have to pursue the topic in the Diet session starting in January, while 40 percent said otherwise.

Sixty-five percent of those who do not approve of the Cabinet said lawmakers should delve further into the issue during Diet debate. The figure for those who had a similar viewpoint and approve of the Cabinet came to 20 percent.

With regard to Abe possibly seeking a fourth term as LDP president by rewriting the party's rules, 63 percent were opposed and 23 percent were in favor, according to the survey.

LDP supporters were split with 46 percent expressing disapproval and 43 percent voicing approval.

The survey also showed that Ishiba, who was defeated by Abe in the two-horse race that marked the LDP leadership election in 2018, is the most popular candidate for LDP president. Twenty-three percent felt this way.

The figure was up from 18 percent in the Sept. 14-15 survey, the last time the same question was asked.

Ishiba has criticized the Abe administration’s handling of the cherry blossom viewing parties and said Abe and other government officials did not fulfill their responsibility of accountability over the issue in the Diet.

Ishiba is also the favorite among LDP supporters, at 22 percent, up from 14 percent in the September survey.

Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi placed second at 20 percent, followed by Defense Minister Taro Kono at 8 percent, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at 6 percent, and Fumio Kishida, chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council, at 5 percent.

Kishida, a former foreign minister, opted out of the 2018 LDP presidency race to help Abe win his third term as LPP chief.

Kishida faces an uphill battle in expanding his support among the public, as the survey showed, as he is perceived to be waiting for Abe to handpick him as his successor simply for being fiercely loyal to him.

The Asahi Shimbun conducted the nationwide telephone survey by randomly choosing numbers for land-line telephones and mobile phones via computer.

Among the 2,047 households contacted through land-line telephones with eligible voters, 1,001, or 49 percent, gave valid responses.

As for mobile phone users, 2,240 users contacted were eligible voters. Of them, 979, or 44 percent, gave valid responses.