Sunday, February 11, 2024

Far From Political Normality in Japan

Kishida Adrift 

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.
February 4, 2024. Special to Asia Policy Point

Having partly dealt with the slush fund scandal in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hopes to re-focus on substantive policy issues such as disaster relief in the Noto Peninsula and passage of the FY 2024 budget bill in the Diet. However, the slush fund scandal is not over. The opposition parties have proposed various political reforms, but Kishida’s response is weak. His administration still operates far from political normality.

The ordinary session of the Diet in 2024 started with an unusual schedule. The customary policy speech by the Prime Minister on the first day of the session was delayed this year because the opposition parties demanded that the Committee of Budget in both Houses discuss political reforms beforehand. The LDP had no choice but to agree to debates, given public interest in political reform as a result of the slush fund scandal.

In the debates, the opposition parties proposed such political reforms as a complete prohibition on fundraising parties or the disclosure of funds raised for the parties that were then distributed to lawmakers. Forced into a defensive position, Kishida apologized for inviting a situation in which the LDP has lost public confidence. But he left the direction of political reform to the discussion among the parties, without offering any of his own ideas.

If Kishida were not shackled to the scandal, this Diet session should have been a stage for him to fight deflation. In his policy speech after the debates in the committee, Kishida stressed the opportunity to remove deflation and to introduce a phase of new growth with his “new capitalism” of wage hikes and positive investment. “With every effort, I am going to achieve a wage increase beyond price hikes,” said Kishida.

Since the Diet session is the first since the Noto Peninsula earthquake on January 1, Kishida pledged ¥1 trillion toward recovery in the stricken area. “I am responsible for the policies from getting the people back to their hometown to revitalization of the region,” Kishida emphasized.

The customary speech of a Prime Minister is also customarily followed by a questioning session with representatives from each party. Questions from the opposition parties this time focused on political reform. The head of the Constitutional Democratic Party, Kenta Izumi, demanded that Kishida request all the LDP members who were involved in the secret funds scandal to resign. The incoming chairwoman of the Japanese Communist Party, Tomoko Tamura, asked Kishida to prohibit any kind of donation from companies or organizations.

Kishida’s answers were ambiguous. Regarding resignations, Kishida said that he would consider making a request in the future after the lawmakers involved in the scandal explain their roles and the LDP fully grasps the facts. It is not clear what action Kishida is going to take. On the donations a from a company or organization, Kishida stressed the freedom of political activity for companies and organizations and said that such donations would not be inappropriate.

While Kishida has been facing harsh criticism from the opposition parties in the Diet, the discussion within the LDP of political reforms remains unsettled. The Abe faction announced on January 31 that it had not included ¥676 million in its political fund reports between 2018 and 2022, and declared the dissolution of the faction, ending its 45-year history, in its last regular meeting on February 1.

The chairperson of the Abe faction, Ryu Shionoya, apologized to its members, saying that he was feeling like his gut was torn apart. But some young members called for Shionoya’s resignation as a lawmaker in expiation for the faction’s scandal. Some members revealed that they had been instructed by the faction not to report the secret fund. Shionoya refused to resign and said that the responsibility of the leaders would be determined sometime in the future. It is fair to say that the rule of the Abe faction in the LDP for the two decades, starting from the time of Junichiro Koizumi administration, has ended.

The outflow of members has not ended Motegi faction. Following the lead of the chair of the LDP Election Strategy Committee, Yuko Obuchi, several lawmakers in both Houses decided to leave the Motegi faction. The remaining members of the Motegi faction have decided to continue its activities as a policy study group without weekly regular meetings. The Kishida faction has decided to close its office and finish its activity as a policy group.

The only faction that has not stepped back (if not dissolved) is the Aso faction. But the faction’s leader, Taro Aso, is creating his own gaffes. In a speech in the Fukuoka prefecture last month, Aso decided to describe the appearance and age of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Yoko Kamikawa. “From the viewpoint of us, this aunt is doing good. She is not that beautiful, though,” said Aso.

The ensuing criticism has gone beyond Aso to Kamikawa, who did not protest Aso’s remarks. Kishida left a boilerplate comment in the discussion of the Diet that members should refrain from mocking someone’s age or appearance.

The LDP has started to interview its members to obtain details on the slush fund scandal. “Even though the factions are dissolved, the responsibility of related people for explaining what happened will remain,” said Kishida in the Diet. Some members of the opposition parties would like to invite LDP lawmakers a hearing on the scandal or to establish a special committee to investigate. Beyond answering questions in the Diet, Kishida seems to have no idea of how to navigate through this political crisis.

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