Be aware of the importance of political neutrality

Public servants must not undermine public trust by violating political neutrality in connection with elections.

Ahead of the official start of campaigning for the House of Councillors election on June 22, Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yasushi Kaneko notified local governments nationwide to ensure that public servants do not violate the Public Offices Election Law or invite suspicion about their political neutrality. Similar notices have also been issued to national public officials and school faculty members.

Article 15 of the Constitution states that “All public officials are servants of the whole community and not of any group thereof,” and restricts both national and local public servants from conducting political activities.

Local public servants, in particular, play a key role in conducting administrative work related to elections and have many opportunities to come into contact with candidates and their campaign officials. They should keep the notice in mind.

In the House of Representatives election in October last year, a deputy governor of Yamaguchi Prefecture resigned after receiving a summary order to pay a fine for taking advantage of his position as a public servant in violation of the Public Offices Election Law. He is alleged to have used his subordinates to solicit prefectural government officials to become members of a supporter group of Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, who holds the Yamaguchi Constituency No. 3 seat in the lower house.

Two senior officials of the Yamaguchi municipal government also received similar summary orders. The prefectural and municipal governments are conducting training sessions on legal compliance to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents.

A senior official of Tokyo’s Toshima Ward government faced a summary indictment on charges of violating the Political Funds Control Law as he allegedly asked subordinates to participate in a political fundraising party held by a former Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly member in June 2021.

According to the ward government’s investigation, the senior official said there was a lack of understanding of the law and a lack of awareness of the duty of political neutrality among public servants.

It is understandable that public servants need to build amicable relationships with politicians in order to carry out their duties smoothly. However, publicly supporting a particular political party or politician crosses a line in terms of political neutrality.

One of the reasons public servants continue to be involved in scandals may be their long-standing back-scratching relations with politicians, which has numbed their sense of morality.

Senior public servants have a responsibility to take the initiative in complying with laws and regulations and eliminating the influence of politicians and candidates. Public servants, including rank-and-file officials, must not take advantage of their positions to show favoritism.

In the last lower house election, there were 296 cases of administrative errors made by local governments. This was the highest number in a national election since the 1995 upper house poll, according to records kept by the internal affairs ministry. Even though the errors were not intentional, such mishaps could shake the legitimacy of elections, which are the foundation of democracy.

The tasks involved in an election range widely from setting up polling stations to securing staff, preparing and distributing ballots and election bulletins, and counting the ballots.

The upper house election is more complicated than the lower house election in that voters can write either the name of a political party or a candidate on their ballots in the proportional representation section. It is hoped that all possible arrangements will be made for the upcoming upper house election.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 17, 2022)