Will Liberal Democratic Party Heavyweight Avoid Punishment by Announcing Intention Not to Run in Upcoming Election?

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Toshihiro Nikai, former secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, right, is accompanied by Motoo Hayashi, former acting party secretary general, at a press conference at LDP headquarters in Tokyo on Monday.

By deciding not to run in the next House of Representatives election, former Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai appears to be trying to penalize himself over LDP factions’ alleged violations of the Political Funds Control Law, and thereby avoid punishment from the party.

The explanations Nikai gave at a press conference at LDP headquarters on Monday lacked details about the scandal and other matters, which may lead to criticism of his approach to the issue.

Prime Minister and LDP President Fumio Kishida visited party headquarters to meet Nikai on Monday evening. Kishida praised Nikai’s announcement that he would not run in the election and thanked him for his efforts to support the LDP.

“I want you to keep supporting our party,” Kishida said.

Kishida had been waiting since around last week to see what Nikai would do. The prime minister tried to find common ground over the party’s punishment of Nikai in cooperation with LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi and Hiroshi Moriyama, chairperson of the party General Council. Moriyama is close to Nikai.

Kishida and others are expected to interview former senior lawmakers of the faction once led by the late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as part of efforts to determine how to punish them.

Aides to Kishida said that Nikai decided “with impeccable timing” not to run in the election.

Nikai’s announcement benefits him in certain ways. There has been speculation that Nikai, now 85, will retire from politics. Despite having an eye on his son as his successor, Nikai has been noncommittal about retiring and not decided who will take over his electoral turf.

If Nikai can avoid being penalized by the LDP, and continue to serve as a Diet member at the time of a lower house dissolution while maintaining his prestige, he will have significant leeway to arrange his successor and play a leading role in deciding the future course of the Nikai faction. It was decided in January that the faction will be dissolved.

Nikai has served as a lawmaker for about a half century, including his days as a Wakayama prefectural assembly member. He acted as LDP secretary general for more than five years, the longest tenure in party history, with his excellent view on political situations and coordinating power. How to deal with Nikai, an LDP heavyweight, is a headache for party executives.

The amount of hidden funds that were not included in the political funds report at Nikai’s political organization came to ¥35.26 million, the largest amount involved in the scandal, excluding the numbers for those who have left the LDP or been expelled.

Nikai’s secretary and his accounting staff have been charged over the scandal, prompting many LDP members to argue that not penalizing Nikai could jeopardize the existence of the party.

On the other hand, a senior party member said it would not be easy to pursue his responsibility, given Nikai’s contributions to the party,

However, Nikai has not provided detailed explanations about how the hidden funds were handled. A political resolution in which Nikai announces he will not run and the party does not punish him could provoke a backlash from the public.

At the start of the press conference on Monday, Nikai read a prepared statement for about five minutes. He apologized for causing distrust in politics, saying, “It’s natural that political responsibility lies with me.”

However, Motoo Hayashi, a former LDP acting secretary general who accompanied Nikai to the press conference, said only that Nikai gave thorough explanations over the scandal. The press conference ended after only about 10 minutes.