Sunday, February 25, 2024

Japan’s Diet Investigates the LDP’s Slush Fund Scandal

Kisha tries to keep it contained

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 18, 2024. Special to Asia Policy Point

On February 15, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) released the result of interviews of its members who were involved in the slush fund scandal. These politicians had received money from their factions from the ticket sales in fundraising parties beyond their quota. The interviews revealed that many faction members were aware of the secret practice, thus inviting skepticism on the ethical principles of the LDP.

As a result, the opposition parties have demanded a thorough disclosure the LDP’s fundraising practices. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, hoping to quell discontent, has made up his mind to accept the opposition’s request for lawmakers to take questions at the Diet’s Special Committees on Political Ethics in each Chamber.

An investigation team in LDP, headed by the chair of General Council, Hiroshi Moriyama, conducted interviews of 85 members who had accepted funds from their factions or kept them for themselves. Of the 85, 82 were lawmakers, and 3 were branch chiefs planning to run for next general election of House of Representatives. 79 were affiliated with the Abe faction and 6 with the Nikai faction, both of which were dissolved after the scandal was revealed.

The investigation team found that 32 members of the 85 interviewed had recognized that the money they received was the return of ticket sales beyond their quota. Eleven members out of the 32 knew that the funds had not been reported to the government –-meaning that they knew the funds were kept secret.

Regardless what kind of the fund it was, 53 members out of the 85 had already spent the money, partly or totally, for their political activities. The other 32 kept it in their offices. The activities included payments to their staff and for meetings, or for the purchase of cars, books, souvenirs, and lunchboxes. Is buying books or lunchboxes political activity? The members might have explained that the books were distributed to people outside of their election districts and that lunchboxes were for staff members at lunchtime events. If the items had been distributed in a member’s district, they would be regarded as illegal donations.

The total amount of the secret funds of the 85 members interviewed was ¥579 million. The lawmaker who had spent the most was the former Secretary of General, Toshihiro Nikai: ¥35 million. Nikai’s political organization once explained that it had bought about 28,000 copies of books, worth ¥34 million, for three years between 2020 and 2022. Nikai’s argument that he read this number of books is ridiculous and serves only to increasing public skepticism about his use of the money.

While the interviews were made for promoting political reform, Kishida knows well that it was not enough. “Taking every opportunity,” said Kishida, “the related members have to take responsibility for regaining people’s credibility.” Now that public prosecutors have finished their investigation of the slush fund scandal and have indicted three lawmakers and other accounting managers of factions, it makes sense for the Diet to look into how LDP lawmakers were involved with the secret funds.

The opposition parties demanded that the LDP convene the Special Committee on Political Ethics in both Houses, where the lawmakers would explain their roles. Although the LDP was reluctant to accede to that demand, Kishida ordered the LDP leaders to consider holding hearings. He is afraid of public frustration with the strange expenditures of tax money by LDP lawmakers.

A Special Committee on Political Ethics was established in each House in 1985, when the Lockheed Scandal shook Japanese politics. A committee meets at the request of any lawmaker who wishes to explain an ethical problem or when one-third of all committee members request a meeting, and a majority of the committeeapproves it. Eight lawmakers have appeared before the committee and answered questions in the past. All eight were members of House of Representatives.

A hearing before one of the special committees differs from hearings before other committees in two important respects: the special committees do not take sworn testimony, and the hearings are usually closed to the public. By contrast, the Committee on the Budget of each House sometimes invites witnesses to testify under oath in public hearings. Under the Diet Testimony Act, any untruth is subject to the penalties for perjury.

Over time, special committees’ approach has sometimes worked for investigations on important political incidents. In this case, however, even if one of the special committees meets in this Diet session and if a member asks that the hearing be open to the public, it is unlikely that the entirety of the scandals will be disclosed.

The opposition parties regard the special committee in the House of Representatives as the first step in scrutinizing the LDP’s scandal. The parties have requested that 51 LDP members appear before the special committee, hoping to question all the members interviewed in the LDP investigation except members of House of Councillors. If the question-and-answer sessions are insufficient, the opposition parties will ask for sworn testimony later on.

It is likely that Kishida will treat a meeting of the special committee as a bargaining chip in negotiations over the FY 2024 budget bill. If the bill passes the House of Representatives 30 days prior to the end of March, that is, by March 2 the budget will be in place at the beginning of FY 2024. However, any meetings of the special committee to hear from the 51 LDP members involved in the scandal will take a long period of time, jeopardizing passage of the budget bill.

The focus in the LDP so far is on whether the five leaders of Abe faction will appear before the special committee. Four of the five leaders, except Hiroshige Seko, are the members of House of Representatives. While young lawmakers in the Abe faction are frustrated with the leadership of the former faction, the five leaders insist on their innocence, stressing that the secret fund was managed without notice to them. It depends on Kishida’s leadership whether these members will answer the questions about slush funds in the special committee.

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