Sunday, April 14, 2024

The LDP's Moral Hazard

No Punishment for the LDP President

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 8, 2024. Special to Asia Policy Point

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) recently announced punishments against the lawmakers who had been involved in the slush fund scandal that emerged last December. But for a few scapegoats, the punishments were light.

Of the 82 lawmakers with the former Abe or Nikai factions who admitted to failing to report surplus funds from ticket sales to fundraising parties, only 39 were punished. Prime Minister Kishida, as the president of the LDP, was not punished, leaving many frustrated.

Five former leaders of the Abe faction received the stiffest penalties. Four out of the five participated in discussions in the Abe faction in 2022 on whether to abolish the kickback system. Despite their leadership responsibilities, they took no action.

The harshest sanctions were imposed on the former chair of the Abe faction, Ryu Shionoya and the former leader of that faction’s House of Councillors’ membership, Hiroshige Seko. They were asked to leave the party. If they did not so within the allotted time, they would be expelled. Seko immediately left the party. Shionoya is considering whether to appeal: “I cannot accept that unjustly heavy penalty, which was imposed on the members of Abe faction making them scapegoats,” said Shionoya in a press conference.

Former Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Yasutoshi Nishimura, and former Education Minister, Hakubun Shimomura, received lighter penalties: they were suspended from party membership for one year. Former Chair of LDP Diet Affairs, Tsuyoshi Takagi, who succeeded Nishimura as the secretary general of the Abe faction in late August of 2022, was suspended from party membership for just six months.

Nishimura, Shimomura, and Takagi could run for re-election, but they will not have the official backing of the LDP until their suspensions end. If an election is called before then, they will face an uphill battle without financial support from the party.

As to the other 77 party members, they all avoided heavy penalties. Sanctions on the 77 were calibrated by the amount of funds they failed to report.

In contrast to the former leaders of the Abe faction, the former Chair of the LDP Policy Research Council, Koichi Hagiuda, and former Chief Cabinet Secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, were suspended only from leadership posts for a year; there was no suspension from party membership. Hagiuda and Matsuno have been important in the Kishida administration, which probably helped them escape more serious penalties. Seven lawmakers who were the leaders of Nikai faction or who failed to report funds in amounts over 20 million yen received the same one-year suspension from leadership posts.

Eight lawmakers who did not report surplus funds of between 10 and 20 million yen were suspended from leadership positions for six months. Seventeen others who did not report between five and ten million yen were merely reprimanded Forty-three lawmakers each of whom failed to report less than five million yen, were not punished at all. That is, the LDP did not impose any penalty on over half of the lawmakers involved in the scandal.

A few thoughts come immediately to mind. First, Kishida’s highest priority is reelection as LDP President. The power of the Abe faction has been an inconvenient truth for Kishida. Although discovery of the slush fund scandal was unexpected, it gave Kishida an opportunity to control that faction, but not to dismantle it. That would have posed too great a risk since it would solidify opposition to him.

Second, Kishida’s strategy in the scandal is to divide and rule. One of the lightly punished leaders, Haguida, has gained Kishida’s personal trust as evidenced by his temporary consideration for appointment as Chief Cabinet Secretary in last September’s cabinet reshuffle. The other, Matsuno, was Kishida’s original choice for CCS at the beginning of the Kishida administration. Kishida hopes to keep Hagiuda, who has many colleagues in Abe faction, and Matsuno close to him. The other – more heavily punished – leaders in the Abe faction did not have close relationship with Kishida.

Third, Kishida cannot punish too many lawmakers because he does not want to create too many enemies in the LDP. If the penalized lawmakers were to leave the party, it would take away votes in the Diet that Kishida needs to pass legislation. Kishida limited the heaviest penalties to the five leaders of the Abe faction. Shionoya and Seko must be the scapegoats to defend his administration from public criticism and further decline in his approval ratings.

Striking this balance between punishment and leniency in the LDP is unlikely to enable Kishida to salvage his administration from the quagmire of scandal. The punishments were far smaller than those in 2005, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi sanctioned the lawmakers who voted against a postal reform bill. Those lawmakers simply defied a policy of the president of their party and did not violate the law. This time, the lawmakers did break the law.

The lack of any punishment for Kishida brings a moral hazard. Kishida has led his faction since before the scandal was revealed last December. An accounting manager in his faction was indicted on a charge of failing to report 30 million yen of political funds. While the leaders of the Abe faction were punished for failing to meet their leadership responsibilities, Kishida escaped any.

It is difficult to punish the president. Even a light penalty, such as suspension from party leadership position, could lead to the resignation of the president, or Prime Minister. Yet a zero penalty can hardly be balanced against the heavy ones for the Abe faction leaders. The only reasonable choice is to step down. Kishida has not chosen this option.

“I have an impression why was he [Kishida] dropped,” said Shionoya in his press conference, “He should be responsible for something, at least in lights of his position as the LDP president or as the head of a faction.” The opposition parties are taking the offensive and pushing for a snap election to hear voters’ voices about LDP politics. While Kishida hopes to raise his approval rating with some achievements in the summit meeting with US President Joe Biden this week, public frustration against an irresponsible prime minister will stick around.

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