By Takuya Nishimura, Senior Fellow, Former Editorial Writer for The Hokkaido Shimbun
The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun
You can find his blog, J Update here.
December 11, 2023. Special to Asia Policy Point
The expanding money scandals in Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) factions promises a significant power shift in the party, and maybe the government. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida must replace those Cabinet and LDP board members who have been identified receiving secret money from their factions. So far, the focus has been on the Seiwa-kai (Abe faction) that has controlled the party and government since most of this century. As a result, it is expected that the Abe faction will lose its grip on Kishida administration.
Most LDP factions, however, including Kishida’s own, are not free of scandal. Although Kishida will reshuffle his Cabinet this week after the Diet session ends on the 13th, the magnitude of the scandal has yet to be determined. It is also unclear how the political damage will affect Abe-era policies.
At the beginning, the scandal looked like some mistakes of each faction in reporting about money of fundraising parties. But it entered another phase when the existence of secret money was revealed. Some factions returned the money received for fundraiser tickets to their members without disclosing them on the political funds report. Abe’s faction imposed a quota on each member for the sales of party tickets, and if a member had sold beyond the quota, the surplus was returned to the member.
The amount of money recorded on political funds report of the Abe faction was the least among five suspected factions in 2022. This faction is the largest in the LDP, and it seems implausible that they could disclose the smallest amount of money received for fundraising parties. Indeed, it strongly indicates that the Abe faction had a great amount of unrecorded secret money.
The first target of the media was Chief Cabinet Secretary (CCS) Hirokazu Matsuno. Matsuno has reportedly received about ¥10 million (approximately USD69,000) from the Abe faction as the surplus for ticket sales beyond his quota between 2018 and 2022. As the secretary general of the Abe faction between 2019 and 2021, Matsuno would certainly have known about the money coming in and going out of the faction. Nevertheless, as CCS, the spokesperson of the Kishida Cabinet, he refused to answer any questions about the secret money in a recent press conference.
Asahi Shimbun reported that other leaders of the Abe faction are suspected of having received surpluses as well. They include all of the “Five Leaders” of the Abe faction: the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry; Yasutoshi Nishimura; the Chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council, Koichi Hagiuda; the Chairman of the LDP Diet Affairs Committee, Tsuyoshi Takagi; the Secretary General of the LDP Upper House Caucus, Hiroshige Seko; and the head of the Abe faction, Ryu Shionoya.
According to another news report, Prime Minister Kishida has decided to replace all of these Five Leaders. Moreover, it is possible that all the ministers from Abe faction, including State Ministers and Parliamentary Vice-ministers, will be discharged from the administration. However, it is not easy to organize an administration without any member of the biggest faction in the controlling party. Accordingly, some members of the Abe faction without deep involvement in the scandal may be staying.
The Abe faction has been exercising its power in the Kishida administration from the beginning and maintained it even after Abe died. Increases in the defense budget and Kishida’s support for a constitutional amendment would expand the military’s authority beyond self-defense have been necessary to gain the support of the Abe faction. If most or all of the Abe faction is forced out of the administration as a result of the scandal, Kishida may be able to focus on his own issues such as raising birth rate and shifting economic policy from growth to redistribution.
Yet Kishida would not have an entirely free hand and will have to balance different considerations. On the one hand, even if Kishida is successful in establishing a new administration without representatives of the Abe faction, Kishida will still need to appease the faction. Otherwise, the faction may protest against Kishida or leave LDP. On the other hand, in order to raise his already low approval rating, Kishida must make fundamental reforms in the LDP.
To assuage the public, Kishida has stepped down as the head of his own faction and ordering all the factions in the LDP to halt fundraising parties for some time. But the opposition parties have promoted a theory that the scandal is not only a violation of the Political Fund Control Act but also a tax evasion scheme. At a minimum, the LDP must be more transparent in dealing with political contributions and begin to discuss amendments to the laws governing fundraising parties.
Reforms could bring new leadership to the LDP. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made LDP reform the ultimate goal of his administration. And he was successful at it.
When Koizumi ran for president in 2001, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s administration was under the control of Heisei-ken of the Motegi faction. To limit the rule of Heisei-ken, Koizumi pursued no-faction politics, excluding any recommendations from the LDP factions when reshuffling his Cabinet and the LDP board.
In 2004, Heisei-ken’s control ended for good with the discovery of a secret donation from the Japan Dental Federation to the Heisei-ken headed by Ryutaro Hashimoto. There are several parallels between those events and the current scandal.
The 2004 scandal and the subsequent reforms enabled Koizumi to take over the political power of the factions and consolidate power to the prime minister’s faction. Only one faction survived -- the Seiwa-kai -- which Koizumi had headed just before he took office as prime minister. Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda retained the one-faction politics and were regarded as Seiwa-kai premiers. The faction’s control has lasted about two decades except when Democratic Party of Japan led the government.
By contrast with Koizumi and Abe, Kishida has had to oversee multi-faction politics and maintain a delicate balance among the factions. At first under the control of Abe’s faction, Kishida has gradually come to rely upon the factions led by Taro Aso and Toshimitsu Motegi. The current scandal is an opportunity for Kishida rid his administration of the influence of Seiwa-kai. It will be fatal if these money scandals are found to spread beyond the Abe faction.
Internal LDP politics and scandals aside, Kishida is facing his own challenges. He has been unable to explain his meeting with the leaders of organizations closely related to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (the Moonies). Asahi Shimbun reported that the leaders of Unification Church’s United States Branch, Michael Jenkins, and of the Japan branch of Universal Peace Federation, Masayoshi Kajikuri, met with Kishida and former Speaker of U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich. The mishandling of an explanation will be fatal to the Kishida administration.
Thus, although Kishida is likely to succeed in eliminating the influence of the biggest faction in the LDP, he must show the public a new version of LDP politics, and himself.