Indictment of lawmakers involved in vote-buying scandal is inevitable

There would be a lack of balance if only a person who gave bribes at the time of an election campaign were charged, while those who received large amounts of cash were not held criminally responsible. It is only natural for prosecutors to indict local lawmakers and others in question.

In a vote-buying case involving the 2019 House of Councillors election, prosecutors indicted on suspicion of violating the Public Offices Election Law 34 out of 100 people, including members of local assemblies within the Hiroshima prefectural constituency, who allegedly received cash from former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, whose prison sentence has been finalized. The 34 included members of the Hiroshima prefectural assembly.

Prosecutors initially acknowledged that the 100 people had received amounts from ¥50,000 to ¥3 million, even though they knew it was an inducement to help Kawai’s wife, Anri Kawai, win the election. However, as prosecutors considered the recipients to have been in a passive position, for reasons such as Kawai’s side having forced them to receive the cash, prosecutors initially decided not to indict them.

In response, a Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution decided that the 35 people who did not return the money immediately or did not resign as local assembly members should be indicted. Prosecutors seem to have reviewed their decision because they took seriously the judgment of the committee, which comprised ordinary citizens.

Among the 35 people, 25 who admitted to having been bribed are expected to be fined after going through summary proceedings. But nine others will face criminal trials. The remaining individual reportedly escaped prosecution due to his poor health.

The five Hiroshima city assembly members held a press conference before the indictment, claiming that they had admitted in the investigation and trials that Kawai had bribed them, because prosecutors had hinted at not punishing them.

Cases of election law violations are not covered by the Japanese version of a plea bargaining system. It is a problem if prosecutors made remarks that could suggest behind-the-scenes deals in the course of the investigation in order to obtain favorable statements for them.

Prosecutors denied such a suspicion at a press conference after the 34 people were indicted. However, it is possible that whether the investigation was proper could become a point of contention in the trials of the nine people.

In recent years, there have been many cases in which prosecutors have changed their decisions after Committees for the Inquest of Prosecution overturned initial decisions not to indict. If there are any doubts about the judgment of prosecutors, who have a near monopoly on the right to prosecute, public trust in the prosecution could be shaken.

Some of the local assembly members indicted this time tried to justify the receipt of cash, such as by saying that it was as good as receiving chugen midsummer and seibo year-end presents. The bad practice of sending cash and gifts around in every election may still remain in some parts of the country. It is hoped that the trials will clarify the actual situation surrounding elections in local areas.

Sixteen local assembly members have resigned since the decision of the committee. The moves may have been made in anticipation of possible indictment and loss of their posts sooner or later, but their actions were undeniably too late.

As a result, by-elections will be held one after another in Hiroshima Prefecture. Lawmakers and others should seriously take the responsibility for this extraordinary situation, in which many local lawmakers have resigned.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 16, 2022.