Replacement of Cabinet Ministers from Abe Faction : Ensure Utmost Transparency of Political Funds / LDP’s Ability to Self-Regulate Put to the Test

It would be nothing short of a public betrayal if individuals within the legislative branch of government created hidden funds in violation of the Political Funds Control Law that the politicians themselves effectuated.

Questions are now being asked as to whether the ruling Liberal Democratic Party can clean up its act.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has simultaneously replaced four Cabinet ministers, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno and Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, and five state ministers — all of whom belong to the LDP’s Abe faction — over allegations that some of the income from the faction’s political fundraising parties became hidden funds.

In the near future, Kishida also intends to replace executive post holders within the party, including Koichi Hagiuda, chairperson of the Policy Research Council, and Tsuyoshi Takagi, chairperson of the Diet Affairs Committee.

New appointments emphasize stability

The prime minister has appointed lawmakers with Cabinet experience to the four ministerial posts, including Yoshimasa Hayashi as chief cabinet secretary and Ken Saito as economy, trade and industry minister.

The Kishida administration is presently in a tight spot due to allegations over political funds. In selecting the four new ministers, Kishida likely emphasized the stability of their answers to questions and the fact that they have never been involved in a political funds scandal.

By the end of the year, the government will have to decide on the details of funding sources for measures to combat the declining birth rate and the revisions of medical service fees. The time for compilation of the budget for the next fiscal year also is drawing near. Policy delays will be unacceptable. The revamped Kishida Cabinet needs to deal appropriately with a variety of issues.

The Abe faction allegedly kicked back to its members in cash the amount of party tickets sales in excess of members’ sales quotas, and instructed that the amount of kickbacks not be included in their own political funds reports. Furthermore, the faction’s political funds report made no mention of the expenditures for the legislators, among other items.

Legally speaking, there is no problem if a faction raises funds at a party or gives kickbacks to its members. However, if the faction and its members do not record the income and expenditure in political funds reports, it is a violation of the Political Funds Control Law due to not recording or falsely reporting such information.

It is not clear why the faction and its members did not include the kickbacks in the political funds reports.

The Nikai and Kishida factions are also suspected of underreporting income from their parties, although those amounts are relatively small compared to those of the Abe faction.

If Kishida claims that the present political funds scandal is a “party-wide problem,” then the LDP should thoroughly investigate the matter and present the public with a detailed explanation of its findings.

It is said that a failure to record or making erroneous reports in political funds reports is a common occurrence among members of both the ruling and opposition parties. If such mistakes are corrected as soon as they are noticed, lawmakers may not be held legally responsible.

Serious consequences

However, the situation is different if an erroneous statement or a failure to record the information involves large sums or is intentional and malicious.

The Political Funds Control Law stipulates that the penalty for not recording or falsely reporting the information is “imprisonment without labor for up to five years or a fine of up to ¥1 million.” A fine alone would result in the suspension of a lawmaker’s civil rights and their loss of status as a Diet member.

Lawmakers must not forget the gravity of such penalties and look upon erroneous statements or failures to report as merely formal errors.

In response to the recent allegations, the LDP is said to be considering dissolving factions, imposing a total ban on factional fundraising parties and conducting a fundamental review of the Political Funds Control Law.

In the past, the dissolution of factions has been advocated whenever the issue of politics and money came up, but such a move has never come to pass.

Factions continue to exercise influence in connection with the reshuffling of cabinet and party executive posts, and hold their fundraising parties. In summer and winter, they distribute special “allowances” to members.

It is time to reconsider how the LDP should manage its political funds as a political party.

In the 1970s, after the fall of Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka — who was criticized over his money politics after receiving large donations from corporations and other entities with various interests — his successor as prime minister, Takeo Miki encouraged political fundraising parties as a “broad and shallow” way to amass funds.

There is no denying that political activities incur certain costs. If fundraising methods are restricted by banning fundraising parties, only asset holders will be able to aim to become politicians. This cannot be said to be appropriate.

More frequent disclosures an option

Fairness and transparency are always vital with regard to the way political funds are collected and used.

Currently, the Political Funds Control Law only requires a person’s name and address to be disclosed when an individual spends more than ¥200,000 on a party ticket.

Meanwhile, donations from companies and organizations to political parties and their branches are subject to such disclosure when donations exceed ¥50,000 per year.

One idea might be to set the same disclosure standard for both party tickets and donations, at over ¥50,000 annually.

Another possibility would be to make it easier to ascertain incomes and expenditures by digitizing political funds reports and requiring lawmakers to disclose reports more often than the current once-a-year pace.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 15, 2023)