Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his ratings sinking over a suspected cronyism scandal, said on Monday he had never instructed that preferential treatment be given to a long-time friend and that his friend had never lobbied for favours.
Abe and his aides have repeatedly denied intervening to help Kake Gakuen (Kake Educational Institution) win approval for a veterinary school in a special economic zone. Its director, Kotaro Kake, is a friend of Abe.
Abe acknowledged that Kake had been his friend since they were students and told a special session of parliament's lower house budget committee that Kake had "never once" sought favours.
"There was no request or lobbying regarding the establishment of a new veterinary school," Abe said.
Asked if he had intervened in the approval process, Abe said: "I have never issued instructions regarding specific cases."
The scandal, and a perception among many voters that Abe's administration is taking them for granted, are encouraging rivals and casting doubt on Abe's hopes for a third three-year term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader.
Several opinion polls have shown Abe's support has plunged below 30 percent and, while this does not immediately threaten his job, it does cloud the longer-term outlook.
Abe was until recently seen as being on track to become Japan's longest-serving prime minister by winning a third three-year term when his current tenure ends in September 2018.
Further pressure is likely to come from Sunday's victory by an opposition candidate in a mayoral election for the northern city of Sendai. That follows an historic defeat for the LDP in elections for the Tokyo assembly earlier this month, a devastating blow since much of Abe's clout has come from his record of leading the party to victories at the polls.
A July 22-23 Mainichi newspaper poll published on Sunday showed Abe's support slipping 10 points to 26 percent from the previous survey in June. It also showed that 56 percent of respondents did not back Abe's government, a 12 point rise.
Also scheduled to appear at Monday's session are Abe's aide, Hiroto Izumi, and Kihei Maekawa, who resigned as the education ministry's top bureaucrat in January and has accused the government of distorting the approval process for the veterinary school.
Abe is expected to reshuffle his cabinet early next month in an effort to repair his damaged ratings, a step often taken by beleaguered leaders but one that can backfire if novice ministers become embroiled in scandals or make gaffes.
Also in trouble is Defence Minister Tomomi Inada, an Abe protege, who faces calls to resign over media reports of direct involvement in a ministry cover-up of documents about a sensitive peacekeeping operation. She denies the reports
Opposition lawmakers are also expected to grill Abe about media reports that Inada allowed defence officials to conceal logs about the activities of the Self-Defense Forces, as Japan's military is known, in a U.N.-led peacekeeping operation in South Sudan.