Saturday, March 23, 2024

Apology at the LDP’s National Convention

Snap Election not yet 

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 18, 2024. Special to Asia Policy Point

Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) held its annual national convention in Tokyo on March 17. The party decided to amend its constitution to impose stricter penalties on its members who were involved in the slush fund scandal. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, LDP president also apologized for the scandal that increased public distrust of the government. Although Kishida repeated his hope for the restoration of confidence in the LDP, he remained unsuccessful in raising the approval rating for his cabinet, casting a dark shadow on his future.

Kishida’s speech at the national convention dealt with party reform to restore confidence in the LDP. “I am very sorry that party members received criticism from the local community on the slush fund scandal. We are amending laws related to political funds and urging related lawmakers to take full responsibility for the scandal,” he said. He added that he had ordered the Secretary General to penalize the lawmakers who were involved in the scandal.

The national convention is the meeting for decision-making in the LDP. Its agenda includes approving a platform for the year. This year the platform calls for political reform in light of the regret about mishandling of political funds by several factions, including Kishida’s own. The platform proposes amending the Political Funds Control Act, the LDP constitution, and other internal rules to ensure transparency of political funds.

The slush fund scandal affects the party activities of the LDP’s local branches. In a meeting of the secretary generals of the prefectural branches, held on the eve of the national convention, local LDP leaders complained about the mishandling of the scandal by party leaders in Tokyo. They demanded punishment of the offending lawmakers as soon as possible. Kishida responded, “I am going to make my best effort risking my life for revitalizing the party.”

The LDP failed to agree on the kind of penalty that should be imposed on each lawmaker involved in the scandal. The LDP listed 82 lawmakers, each affiliated with the Abe or Nikai faction, who had received secret funds from their faction. Although Kishida was not listed, he was the former head of his faction, The faction’s accounting manager has been found guilty of false reporting of the funds. It remains to be seen whether Kishida can avoid responsibility for the management, or rather mismanagement, of his faction.

The lawmakers involved in the slush fund affair have not taken heed of Kishida’s urging that they explain their involvement in the scandal. In the Deliberative Council on Political Ethics in the Upper House, one of the five leaders in Abe faction, Hiroshige Seko, said that he did not know about any secret funds of the Abe faction, even though he knew about the kickback system in the fundraising parties. The lawmakers who appeared on the council in both Houses repeatedly said that they did not know about the secret funds.

Kishida’s inability to put to rest the criticisms about the slush fund scandal further affects the approval rating for his cabinet. While the approval rating for the Kishida Cabinet was up one point, to 22% from 21% over the past month, according to Asahi Shimbun mid-March poll, the disapproval rating rose by 2 points to 67% over the same period. This was the highest disapproval rating since the LDP retook the ruling position in 2012. Polls in Mainichi Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun showed low approval ratings around 20%, although they showed a little improvement from February.

Kishida is focusing on the by-elections in the House of Representatives in late April to regain power in his administration. These elections will show how frustrated the public is with LDP politics. “If implementing policies is an aspect of politics, elections are another. Recognizing sharp criticisms against our party, though, I’m going to do my best to win the by-elections,” said Kishida to party members at the national convention, demanding unification of the party in its current difficult situation.

The election campaign in each district is far from hopeful for Kishida. In the Nagasaki 3rd district, where a lawmaker indicted for the false reporting of political funds resigned, Kishida has reportedly decided not to offer a LDP candidate. It is unusual for a ruling party not to enter any candidate in a district election. By default, this by-election will be counted as a defeat in one of the three by-elections.

A LDP lawmaker from the Tokyo 15th district was arrested last December on suspicion of violating the Public Official Election Act. He was found guilty in Tokyo District Court last week. The LDP has not found a new candidate for this by-election. Although the LDP is hopeful that it will have a candidate in the Shimane 1st district, it is not easy to win there. The former representative of the district was the late Speaker of House of Representatives, Hiroyuki Hosoda. The Shimane LDP faces an uphill battle because Hosoda was one of the former heads of the Abe faction, which was responsible for the slush fund scandal.

If the LDP loses all the three by-elections, there will be serious thought given to replacing Kishida. The results of by-elections typically foreshadow the results in the next general election of the House. The Representative of LDP’s coalition partner Komeito, Natsuo Yamaguchi, has rejected an early snap election, saying that Kishida should not call for dissolution of House of Representatives until the LDP has restored public confidence for its politics.

In the discussion of the Upper House Committee on Budget on March 18, Kishida denied he would call a snap election before LDP concludes determining penalties for the lawmakers involved in the slush fund scandal.

Apart from the slush fund scandal, Kishida’s political situation is not so bad. Reflecting a booming economy with stock market rallies, corporations announced unusually high increases in workers’ compensation in their annual negotiations with labor unions. The Bank of Japan followed by deciding to scrap its negative interest rate policy. An official visit to the United States in mid-April and a tax reduction in June should boost his administration. However, public distrust of Kishida may be too strong to overcome.

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