Sunday, April 28, 2024

Diet Political Reform Committee Reestablished

Outcome Still Uncertain

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.
April 22, 2024. Special to Asia Policy Point.

Both Houses of the Diet have established special committees for political reform to develop legislation to regulate the management of political funds. The committees are to address the public’s distrust of politics, which arose from the slush fund scandal in the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) factions. Although Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hopes to bring about a consensus among the parties in these committees, it is still unclear whether he can.

Establishing a “special committee” beyond what already exists is a routine tactic for a ruling party to show regret for their wrongdoing. Both the Lockheed Scandal in the 1970s and the Recruit Scandal in the 1990s led to special committees even though each House already had a permanent committee to examine such scandals. This time, each chamber established a special committee for the slush fund scandal by reorganizing their existing committee for political ethics and electoral reform.

Kishida has shown his willingness to undertake reforms to political contributions and expenditures to prevent another slush fund scandal. The opposition parties have been looking for opportunities to accuse the LDP of only minor reforms of the party’s fundraising scandal. But no party disagreed with the establishment of the special committee. The parties are instead focus on matters of substance.

In the slush fund scandal, no leader of the Abe or Nikai factions was arrested or indicted, while accounting managers and private secretaries were. The three lawmakers indicted on charges of receiving excessive funding were not the leaders of a faction. Accordingly, an important point for political reform is how the leaders take responsibility.

One option is to impose heavy penalty on lawmakers who were involved in a scandal. Revoking membership in the Diet would be such a penalty. Not only the opposition parties, but the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito, is willing to introduce such a measure. Komeito has been sensitive to criticisms from their own supporters about its cooperation with the LDP.

The LDP has revised its internal rule that the party would suggest (but not require) a leader to leave the party or have his party membership suspended whenever the accounting manager of his campaign is arrested or indicted. The leader then would be urged again to resign from the party or face expulsion. if the accounting manager is found guilty. Most LDP lawmakers oppose enacting this rule on their view that the loss of Diet membership is too heavy a punishment for a slush fund scandal.

Article 251 of the Public Offices Election Act would be a model for revocation. Under this article, a candidate’s electoral victory will be cancelled if his or her accounting manager is found guilty of bribery or a similar offense. LDP lawmakers distinguish, however, between receiving slush funds and taking bribes.

A second approach would be to ban contributions from companies or organizations. This has been under discussion for a long time with no end in sight. Currently, the Political Funds Control Act (PFCA) allows companies and organizations to contribute to a lawmaker’s campaign organization, but it prohibits direct contributions to a lawmaker personally. The LDP has learned how to exploit this rule; the opposition parties demand a total ban on contributions from companies and organizations.

A third possibility is the abolition of “policy activities fund,” a fund controlled by a party that contributes to individual lawmakers. The LDP maintains such a fund. A lawmaker who receives such funds does not have to disclose the contribution or his use of the funds. The opposition parties argue for the abolition of these funds. Komeito requires its members to disclose their use of contributions from its policy activities fund. The LDP is basically negative on abolition of the fund and any disclosures about it.

Finally, the Diet could place stricter limits on the fundraising parties, which are the source of the current scandal. The opposition parties, which do not hold such events, are urging for this reform. The Constitutional Democratic Party would ban any type of fundraising party, while the Japan Innovation Party and the Japan Communist Party propose a prohibition on the purchase of party tickets by companies and organizations.

Currently a company must report any ticket purchases to a particular party of 200,000 yen or more. Komeito has proposed lowering the threshold to 50,000 yen. The LDP has suggested only the abolition of fundraising parties by factions. Private fundraising parties by lawmakers would be untouched.

A fifth reform that the LDP is considering is an independent third-party audit of each fund-raising party. But the LDP’s overall reluctance to regulate campaign contributions comes from a lack of seriousness among LDP lawmakers. No opposition party has the power to replace the LDP as the leading party. There is also an aspect of the slush fund scandal that is a power struggle among LDP factions.

The April newspaper polls conducted last weekend showed, once again, a low approval rating for the Kishida Cabinet. Some polls did indicate a minor boost, possibly the result of his visit to the United States. This may not be enough to sway the electorate. The by-elections scheduled for April 28 may bring an unexpectedly negative result for Kishida and his party. Given continued public distrust of the LDP, it remains unclear whether the Kishida administration will survive the current political crisis.

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