Saturday, March 9, 2024

Unusual Appearance of Prime Minter Kishida before the Ethics Council

An unsatisfying occurrence

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 2, 2024. Special to Asia Policy Point

The first example of an incumbent prime minister’s appearance before the Diet’s Lower House Deliberative Council on Political Ethics (DCPE) occurred last week. The DCPE was established in 1985, two years after former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was found guilty in Tokyo District Court of involvement with the 1976 Lockheed Bribery Scandal that damaged Japanese politics.

On February 29, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sat before DCPE to take questions about the slush fund scandal. He apologized for losing public confidence in politics as the result of the scandal. Despite his hope to restore that confidence, Kishida was not successful in removing all the doubts about the control of political funds in the LDP.

Kishida’s original plan was to have the DCPE meet on February 28 and 29 and to have the Lower House send the FY 2024 budget bill to the Upper House by March 1. But the meeting on February 28 was cancelled because some lawmakers from the former Abe faction refused to attend and to take questions from the committee if the meeting was open to the public. If it had been held as a closed meeting, it was obvious that the Kishida administration would have been seen as not serious about restoring public confidence in political ethics.

Making the second surprise this year, after the dissolution of his faction in January, Kishida decided on the morning of February 28 to attend the public committee meeting to explain the scandal, hoping to break the deadlock that was delaying the budget. His unusual decision helped the LDP to agree with the opposition parties to hold committee meetings on February 29 and March 1. As part of the deal, the budget bill passed the Lower House in an unusual weekend session on Saturday, March 2.

An isolated prime minister is emerging from the process. Even when Kishida orders LDP lawmakers to fulfill their responsibility to explain the scandal, they are reluctant to follow him. Lawmakers in the Abe faction have been frustrated with Kishida’s leadership since he fired all the Abe faction ministers when the scandal unfolded last December. Kishida’s trilateral cooperation with two other faction leaders, Taro Aso and Toshimitsu Motegi, has weakened after Kishida unilaterally announced the dissolution of his own faction.

As for the Nikai faction, its former secretary general, Ryota Takeda, tried to protect his boss, Toshihiro Nikai: “While Mr. Nikai is apparently the symbol of our faction, he has nothing to do with any office work or accounting,” said Takeda at the PEC meeting. By contrast, Kishida has no follower defend him as Takeda did for Nikai.

Was Kishida successful in the Q&A session of the DCPE on February 29, anyway? The short answer is no. He proposed an amendment to the Political Funds Control Act seeking heavier penalties for lawmakers whose staff engaged in illegal activities. He also said he is considering an official LDP punishment for members who were involved in the slush fund scandal. He promised to have no more private fundraising parties during his term as prime minister. Critically, however, he failed to explain the truth of the scandal.

The committee members from opposition parties asked when, by whom, and for what Abe faction’s “kickback system” had been established. The system returned to a member the proceeds of ticket sales for fundraising parties beyond the member’s quota. Kishida said that the return of excess proceeds had begun at least ten years ago. But everyone already knew that because that was revealed in the LDP’s internal survey. “We could not find exactly when and how it had been established,” said Kishida.

Another point was why the Abe faction resumed the kickbacks, even after Shinzo Abe, as the president of the faction, decided to abolish that practice in the spring of 2022. Kishida explained that LDP, which had no power to enforce its requests for information, could not find everything. Asked whether he made a request to former factional president and former Premier, Yoshiro Mori, Kishida simply answered that there had been no reference to Mori in the LDP survey.

The facts of slush fund scandal were made rather clearer in the Council on March 1 with the attendance of four leaders of the Abe faction: Yasutoshi Nishimura, the former Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry; Hirokazu Matsuno, the former Chief Cabinet Secretary; Ryu Shionoya, the former Minister of Education; and Tsuyoshi Takagi, the former chair of the Diet Affairs Committee of the LDP. Nishimura, Matsuno and Takagi were former secretary generals of the Abe faction, and Shionoya chaired regular meetings of the Abe faction after Abe died.

On when the kickback system started, Matsuno told of his experience. He learned of the kickback system after he became a lawmaker and joined the Abe faction in 2000. The president of the faction at the time was Jun-ichiro Koizumi, and the prime minister was Mori. Shionoya said that the system was established over 20 years ago to help young lawmakers who could not raise political fund by themselves.

How Abe’s decision to abolish the kickback had been reversed was still not clearly explained. Nishimura, who was the secretary general of the Abe faction at the time, recalled that Abe decided in a meeting in April 2022 to end it out of his concern that the obscurity of the fund would invite doubts about the integrity of the LDP. Nishimura then said that some members requested the LDP leaders to resume the kickback system after Abe was shot to death in July.

Although Nishimura said that no conclusion was reached during an August 2022 meeting, Shionoya remembered that they talked about keeping the kickback system at least for 2022. Opposition party members quickly noted the contradiction. However, no Abe faction leaders could name who requested the resumption of kickbacks or who decided to continue it. They also denied that they had recognized the illegality of the kickbacks, even after Abe decided to abolish it.

Another big question was how the kickbacks had been spent. All four leaders said that they had been used for political purposes. If the kickbacks were sent from the faction to the political organization of each lawmaker as a donation and were used for political purpose, then they would not be taxed. But if a kickback was treated as the private income of the lawmaker, it would be taxed. Matsuno explained that some funds were kept in his office in cash and some to support meetings with lawmakers, but he did not reveal who were at the meetings.

According to the discussions in the DCPE the facts in the Abe faction were as follows: someone started the kickback system over 20 years ago and Abe decided to end it in April 2022; Abe was unfortunately assassinated three months later, and someone wanted to be given his surplus funds back; the system was reactivated in 2022 by whom no one knows; no one realized that the kickback was illegal even though it was not recorded on the political funds report; and the funds were used only for political purposes.

The opposition parties were not satisfied with this story and demanded further investigation in the Diet. There are some options going forward: asking other leaders to speak in the PEC, inviting the former president of the Abe faction to the Budget Committee hearing, or establishing new special committee for investigation. Whatever the next step, the scandal is still hanging around.

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