Friday, January 26, 2024

Kishida's Survival Gamble

Taro Aso
Will his administration survival?

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.
January 21, 2024. Special to Asia Policy Point

The Special Investigation Division of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office has mostly wrapped up its investigation into the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) slush fund scandal. They indicted some Abe faction lawmakers and the accounting managers of the Abe, Nikai, and Kishida factions.

To restore public confidence in politics, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced the dissolution of his faction. Although the Abe and Nikai faction also agreed to be dissolved, the remaining three LDP factions--Aso, Motegi and Moriyama—have not. Kishida’s abrupt and unilateral decision threatens to bring about a sharp rift in the LDP.

The Asahi Shimbun has reported that the public prosecutors indicted two lawmakers in the Abe faction, Yasutada Ono and Yaichi Tanigawa, on charges of violating the Political Funds Control Act. The two are specifically alleged to have failed to report funds from the faction that were derived from the sales of tickets for fundraising parties. On January 7, prosecutors had already arrested a lawmaker, Yoshitaka Ikeda.

Ono was indicted in house and has denied any involvement in illegal activities. Tanigawa received a summary indictment and admitted the charge against him. Both men have left the LDP and Tanigawa has submitted his resignation from the Lower House.

The accounting managers of three factions allegedly failed to report the funds relating to their faction’s fundraising parties, including the return of some proceeds of the fundraisers to the lawmakers. Amounts not reported include ¥1.3 billion for the Abe faction, ¥380 million for the Nikai faction and ¥30 million for the Kishida faction.

Strangely, leading lawmakers in the Abe faction, including the “Five Guys,” were not indicted. Prosecutors interviewed them about the management of their money, but apparently did not find sufficient evidence of their participation in reporting violations. The leaders explained that the head of the faction, either former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or former Speaker of House of Representatives, Hiroyuki Hosoda controlled the unreported funds. Coincidentally, both men are deceased.

Abe ended the “kickback” practice, but his successors in the LDP reversed the decision after he died in July 2022. The leaders of the Abe faction and the accounting manager said in their interviews with the prosecutors that the accounting manager decides whether the funds would be reported or not. Prosecutors failed to ask who was responsible for the decision to resume kickbacks.

Another question: What is the difference between the lawmakers who were arrested or indicted and the ones who were not? Asahi and other news media have reported that the charging threshold was ¥30 million. Ono, Tanigawa and Ikeda are suspected or charged with failing to report ¥40 to ¥50 million of funds, while the Abe faction failed to report less than ¥30 million.

It is true that the Abe faction’s unreported amount is lower than in the cases of the Japan Dental Federation in 2004, in which the Heisei Study Group, currently the Motegi faction, received ¥100 million, or of the office of Ichiro Ozawa, which failed to report ¥2.1 billion in 2010. However, the Abe faction has run its kickback system for nearly two decades. Ordinary people will have a hard time understanding the decision not to indict Abe faction leaders.

Predictably, the approval rating of Kishida’s Cabinet did not show any upsurge (Asahi: from 23% to 23%, Yomiuri: from 25% to 24%) after the indictments were announced. Kishida had at first underplayed the reporting failures, but he changed his tune after Asahi reported the prosecutors’ plan to indict not only people with the Abe and Nikai factions, but also some with Kishida faction. He abruptly announced the dissolution of his faction to show his commitment to party reform and to limit further damage to his administration’s public standing.

Kishida did not consult with other factions before announcing the dissolution of his faction. The announcement came as a surprise, if not a shock, to the LDP. Following Kishida’s announcement, the Abe and Nikai factions, both of which handled greater amounts of slush funds than the Kishida faction, called urgent assemblies and declared the dissolution of their factions. Although Kishida did not demand that other factions also dissolve, his decision effectively destroyed the two other major factions.

The other three factions are in a difficult position. They are not alleged to have failed to report political funds, but they are the subject of guilt by association. The factions have stressed the positive aspects of factions as policy study groups. The leader of the Aso faction and the vice-president of LDP, Taro Aso, told Kishida that he would not dissolve his faction. This faction, as well as the Motegi and Miroyama factions will decide how to respond formally to Kishida’s action after the Political Reform Headquarters of LDP issues its interim report later this month.

The structure of the Kishida administration, supported by Aso and Motegi factions, may well collapse, if Kishida does not establish an appropriate rule for the activities of factions. Some in the LDP have discussed making any faction a genuine study group, and ending their roles in the distribution of political funds, support of member campaigns, and recommendation of members for cabinet or party leadership positions.

The LDP may be divided between pro- and anti-faction groups if Aso and Motegi insist on retaining theirs. Kishida’s approval rating has declined for several months. Party leaders could replace Kishida, ensuring his failure in the next general election. Kishida has, however, gambled his administration’s survival on the public’s understanding of his party’s arcane factions without explaining the purpose their fundraising.

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