Sunday, March 17, 2024

An Insufficient Political Reform Draft

Protecting Privilege

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.
March 9, 2024. Special to Asia Policy Point

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on March 7 presented its members with a draft plan for political reform. Revisions are proposed to the party’s rules, disciplinary regulations, and governance code, including a ban on traditional factions. Although LDP lawmakers criticized party leaders for loopholes in the draft, they reluctantly approved it.

The draft imposes tougher penalties on lawmakers whose staff is arrested or indicted for involvement in illegal activities involving political funds. The draft also provides for the expulsion of any lawmaker whose accounting manager is convicted for a violation of the Political Funds Control Act.

The LDP Political Reform Headquarters, headed by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, has held discussions over party reforms from the beginning of this year. In an interim report from the headquarters late January, the party proposed banning factions from dealing with political funds and from involvement in the selection of ministers or party board members.

The draft of political reform was offered at the March 7 meeting concluding discussions over the past two months. It is expected to be approved in the national convention scheduled for March 17.

There are some rules that apply to LDP itself. The draft revises the Party Constitution, the Party Discipline Rules, and the Governance Codes. For example, Chapter 8 of the LDP Constitution establishes the Party Ethics Committee and the Political Ethics Hearing Committee. The March 7 draft proposes that the Political Ethics Hearing Committee can request the Secretary General to convene the Party Ethics Committee, when a party member or a policy group violates the Ethics Charter in the Party Discipline Rules. The Political Ethics Hearing Committee can also recommend that the Secretary General take necessary measures when an activity of policy group needs to be improved.

The preamble of the Party Discipline Rules establishes political ethics to secure public confidence in politics and requires each party member not to lose the trust of the people. When an accounting manager is arrested or indicted on a charge of violating the Political Funds Control Act, the draft empowers the party to impose on the lawmaker one of five penalties: suspension of appointment to party officials, recommendation to resign from the Diet or government, deregistration as an official candidate of the party in elections, disqualification as a party member, or a recommendation to leave the party.

If an accounting manager for a member is found guilty (after appeals are exhausted) of a violation of the Political Funds Control Act, the party will recommend that the lawmaker leave the party or be expelled. The expulsion clause was highlighted in news reports as the point of revising party rules after the slush fund scandal.

The Governance Code is a relatively new rule, having been introduced in 2022. The Code sets forth the responsibilities of party members and transparency of the party in order to maintain public confidence in the LDP. The March 7 draft adds to the basic principles of the code “strict treatment on the issue of political funds.” Defining “faction” as an organization, which tries to maximize its power and increase its membership, whenever it is backed by the power of money and can influence appointments to posts in the government or party board, the draft prohibits maintenance or establishment of this kind of faction. And it also prohibits policy groups from holding fundraising parties and obliges them to have an external audit.

Changes to the Governance Code do not include the elimination of factions, because it allows factions in the form of policy study groups, to which the definition of “faction” is not applied. There were some complaints in LDP that the definition did not extend to all political organizations.

The LDP has so far failed to disband factions. The party released a Political Reform Guidelines in 1989, when LDP was involved in the Recruit scandal of receiving unlisted stocks. The Guidelines have yet to be implemented. The Guidelines provide for three actions to initiate abolishing a faction: 1) the supreme adviser leaves the faction, 2) the president, vice-president, secretary general, chair of general council, chair of policy research council, chair of Diet members of Upper House, and ministers in cabinet leave the faction, and 3) the officials of the factions do not take action as if they are making party decisions.

In early 2000s, Junichiro Koizumi supported the abolition of factions. He left his faction when he became Prime Minister. However, the result of the “Koizumi reform” was that the Koizumi faction, Seiwa-kai, was subsumed by Yoshiro Mori. Under the Koizumi administration, the Mori faction grew to be the biggest faction in the LDP. It was succeeded by Nobutaka Machimura, Hiroyuki Hosoda, and Shizo Abe. Now, it is cynically expected that the factions will be reborn in the LDP, notwithstanding the latest reforms.

LDP will limit factions in the party organization by ending their role in the selection of personnel for governmental minister and party board posts. Nothing in the draft, however, excludes the influence of factions, or policy study groups, in the appointment process.

The March 7 draft also does not refer to which part of the national laws the LDP plans to amend. Although LDP urges tougher penalties for violations of the Political Funds Control Act, the opposition parties demand the resignation of any lawmaker if his/her accounting manager is conclusively found guilty of violating the statute. Some opposition parties also propose a total prohibition on donations from the business sector or organizations such as trade unions. The LDP has shown no sign of acceding to this demand.

The draft did not touch on penalties by the LDP on the lawmakers who were involved in the slush fund scandal. In the discussion in the Deliberative Council on Political Ethics in the House of Representatives, former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda insisted that Kishida punish those lawmakers. Kishida answered that the LDP would decide on sanctions. Young lawmakers in the LDP are frustrated that the leaders of the Abe faction have not taken responsibility for their false control of political funds.

The opposition parties argue that the revisions of the LDP’s internal rules are too weak to guarantee transparency and establish ethics in politics. But the LDP has not put its own ideas for amendments of the Political Funds Control Act on the table in the negotiations with the opposition parties. The LDP remains reluctant to have hearings on all 32 lawmakers who have been requested by the opposition parties to appear before the Deliberative Council on Political Ethics in the Upper House. The failure to make much progress undermines the political basis of Kishida administration, which continues to have low approval ratings.

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