/

LDP ally regroups after Watanabe loan scandal

Asao takes helm of Your Party

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Embattled Your Party on Friday formally appointed Secretary-General Keiichiro Asao as its new president after its image was tarnished by an ¥800 million money scandal involving founder Yoshimi Watanabe, who resigned.

Asao, who announced his candidacy Thursday, was endorsed by party members at an all-party meeting and replaced Watanabe without an election because nobody ran against him. Watanabe was not present at the meeting.

“Whether or not we can restore our party depends on if we can pursue what voters want us to do,” Asao said after he was approved as party leader. “That is to push for reforms without any influence from vested interest groups.”

Asao is slated to pick the party’s other executives by next Tuesday when the executive council is scheduled to convene.

Asao on Thursday emphasized that his policies were consistent with Watanabe and said the party would continue to serve as a “responsible opposition party” — meaning it will provide policy alternatives to those set by the ruling bloc — and cooperate with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on certain issues.

Your Party helped the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc enact the contentious state secrecy law last December. Watanabe also supports Abe’s efforts to reinterpret war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution so Japan can exercise the right to collective self-defense.

Asao said the party will come up with a consensus on collective self-defense after discussing what’s needed in the changing security situation surrounding Japan.

“Japan’s restraint on exercising the right to collective self-defense is a Constitutional interpretation made during the Cold War,” he said. “But the time and the security situation have changed since then.”

Yet it is unclear how much influence Asao, a former member of the Democratic Party of Japan, can exercise in dealing with the LDP, because Your Party’s cozy relations with Abe largely owe to a personal bond Watanabe had forged with him since his LDP days. Watanabe also served as state minister for financial policy and administrative reforms during Abe’s first stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007.

Asao will face a test in rebuilding the party, whose scandal-free image has been severely tarred by the ¥800 million Watanabe loan affair.

Watanabe, who will remain in the party, apparently wants to put an end to the scandal when the party produces an investigative report on the matter next Tuesday, but DPJ chief Banri Kaieda demanded that Watanabe testify before the Diet political ethics committee over the issue.

Watanabe borrowed the ¥800 million from Yoshiaki Yoshida, chairman of major cosmetics company DHC Corp., but some of it was borrowed shortly before a Upper House election and the rest ahead of a Lower House poll. But since he never logged the loans in his official political or election funds reports, suspicions rose that he broke the Political Funds Control Law.

Even at the press conference last week where the founder of the minor opposition party expressed his intention to quit the helm, Watanabe never explained how he used the loan in detail. He also refused to disclose information on his wife’s bank account, which he claimed held ¥500 million of the loan.