Opposition leaders lash Abe over scandals, consumption tax

by Hiroko Nakata

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling bloc drew heavy fire Wednesday over a spate of scandals during a debate with the leaders of five opposition parties on the eve of the official start of campaigning for the July 29 Upper House election.

Throughout the two-hour faceoff at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Abe, head of the Liberal Democratic Party, was criticized for his Cabinet ministers’ money scandals and for being evasive on a consumption tax hike.

Advocating a tax hike during campaign season can mean political suicide, and Abe’s ruling bloc, which also includes New Komeito, has repeatedly said it won’t discuss tax reform until fall.

Asked by Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii if he will bring up the consumption tax to get voters’ approval in the election, Abe sidestepped the issue and instead repeated that the budget deficit could be pared by reduced spending.

Abe managed to fight back, however, when the debate shifted to the pension record-keeping fiasco, attacking the Democratic Party of Japan’s approach to solving the problem.

He slammed DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa for not explaining clearly how the DPJ could uphold its pledge to finance the pension system without raising the consumption tax.

Ozawa answered that the DPJ would legislate steps to curb pension benefits for those with high income. Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima blasted Abe over his Cabinet members’ mismanagement of political funds, specifically targeting farm minister Norihiko Akagi.

The Cabinet has been awash with scandals, leading to resignations and one suicide. Akagi’s woes emerged mere weeks after replacing Toshikatsu Matsuoka, who in May hanged himself hours before he was to be grilled in the Diet over multiple money scandals and links to a bid-rigging affair.

Administrative reform minister Genichiro Sata resigned in December also over funds scandal. Then Fumio Kyuma was forced to resign as defense minister last week for suggesting the 1945 U.S. atomic bombings were justified.

The debate also involved the leaders of Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) and New Party Nippon.