Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Japan's Ordinary Diet Session Ends

A bad term for Kishida

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.
June 23, 2024. Special to Asia Policy Point

On June 23, Japan’s ordinary Diet session for this year ended. From the beginning, the session was preoccupied with the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) slush fund scandal.  Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration barely survived persistent inquiries from the opposition parties about the LDP’s secret expenditures of political funds.  By now, Kishida is exhausted after his efforts to protect his party and isolated from nearly everyone in the party. His reelection as LDP president this fall is uncertain at best.

The slush fund scandal came to public attention last November when a professor, Hiroshi Kamiwaki, found that some lawmakers had reported actual expenditures more than their fundraising. This difference lay in the fact that lawmakers, most of whom were affiliated with the Abe faction, had failed to report income from the sales of tickets for fundraising parties. The Special Investigation Division of the Tokyo Public Prosecutors Office began to investigate them and their factions.

Before the Diet’s ordinary session was convened in January, Kishida tried to protect his Cabinet by firing four Ministers of the Abe faction. But it was too little too late to mitigate the impact of the slush fund scandal. It emerged that the secret “kickback” of party ticket sales was a regular method of distributing political funds in the Abe faction. In January, the Public Prosecutor’s Office indicted three lawmakers in that faction and a number of accounting managers in the Abe and Nikai factions.

Considering public resentment of the LDP, Kishida suddenly announced that he would dissolve his own faction, Kochi-kai. He did not consult with his closest allies, LDP Vice-president Taro Aso or Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi. When the leaders of the Abe faction were reluctant to appear before the Political Ethics Council of both Houses to address the scandal, Kishida abruptly decided to urge the leaders of Abe faction to attend the Council meetings.

Those two unilateral decisions -- dissolving Kochi-kai and appearing before the Councils – put considerable distance between Kishida and other party leaders. The leaders regarded Kishida’s decisions as a form of populism.

The LDP eventually determined that 82 lawmakers had failed to report kickbacks and punished 39. The 39 included Ryu Shionoya, the chair of the Abe faction, and Hiroshige Seko, the top leader of the Upper House lawmakers in the faction. Both left the party. Other leaders, including some from the Nikai faction, were suspended from party membership or party leadership posts. These lawmakers felt they were being made scapegoats for the Kishida administration.

In handling the scandal, Kishida could never explain to the public why the scandal had happened. Some believe that the kickback system in the Abe faction began when former prime minister Yoshiro Mori was the faction leader. But Kishida did not ask Mori for details, thus casting doubt on Kishida’s seriousness about the issue. Kishida’s seeming indifference to public sentiment against politicians’ mismanagement of political funds to avoid taxation caused a steady decline in the approval ratings of his administration.

In the second half of the ordinary session, Kishida focused on a bill to amend the Political Funds Control Act. Although the bill passed the Diet at the end of the session, it included three important loopholes.

First, at the insistence of Komeito, the LDP lowered the threshold for disclosing the identities of party ticket purchasers from 200 thousand yen to 50 thousand yen. But the LDP did not revise the bill to set a limit on the number of fundraising parties each year.

Second, the bill requires certain disclosures about policy activity funds, the money that is distributed from a party to its leaders without mandate of reporting. But there is a time lag: disclosures are required only 10 years after the distribution of funds. Moreover, the crime of failing to properly report political funds will legally become invalid after five years. It is possible that an incorrect report cannot be punished when it is disclosed ten years after, because it already is invalid.

Third, the law requires every lawmaker to certify his or her political funds report. Yet if the certification is wrong, the legislation allows a lawmaker to blame his or her accounting manager.

Caught in the middle between the LDP, which has sought as loose regulation as possible and the opposition parties, sometimes including Komeito, which have called for stricter standards on political funds, Kishida made compromises with both sides. The decision to lower threshold for the disclosure of party ticket purchasers left behind leaders of the LDP including Aso and Motegi.

Kishida’s unilateral handling of politics during the session has taken its toll. In the leaders’ debate in the last week of the session, in which the opposition leaders demanded that Kishida dissolve the House of Representatives and hold a general election, Kishida firmly rejected a snap election at the end of the session.

Although the opposition parties proposed a no-confidence resolution in the prime minister, the ruling party rejected it with majority of votes. Arguments remain, however, that Kishida is not a fit party leader in the coming presidential election. Kuniyoshi Azuma, a member of the Lower House affiliated with the Motegi faction, explicitly questioned Kishida’s campaign. “Kishida should be circumspect in referring to his reelection and have more self-restraint,” said Azuma at a meeting in Asahikawa City, Hokkaido.

Party leaders now hold clandestine meetings to discuss the timing of a snap election. Summer elections would give the LDP a miserable defeat because of the extremely low approval rating for the Kishida Cabinet and the LDP. They have concluded that it would be best for a snap election to be held this fall after September’s selection of a new LDP president.

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