Staff writer

Will Obuchi’s about-face decision to eliminate corporate donations to individual lawmakers break the scandal-tainted political circles of a country that has a history of closed-door politics?

Unlikely, political analysts say. There are still plenty of avenues for politicians to partake in the interests of big business, given the number of loopholes left in the Political Funds Control Law, revised in 1994 after a number of political money scandals involving LDP members rocked the country in the 1980s and early 1990s.

For the average Liberal Democrat, corporate donations account for 42.2 percent of income, and a single law is not likely to be enough to force lawmakers to break that dependence.

A lawmaker will be able to continue receiving corporate donations via local party chapters whose heads are, in most cases, the lawmakers themselves.

“There won’t be much difference for the Diet member who is the head of a local chapter, ” said Takeshi Sasaki, a professor of politics at Tokyo University. “Money will just go into another pocket.”

Under the law, one corporation can provide a maximum 100 million yen in political donations per year. Therefore, provided a certain company donates to a single local chapter, it can effectively donate 100 million yen to a lawmaker heading that chapter.

The law also stipulates that political funds to a lawmaker should basically be controlled by a single official fund-management body.

Despite the apparent loopholes, many powerful LDP politicians are staunchly opposed to the ban on corporate donations to individual lawmakers. The ban must take effect in January 2000 as stipulated in the revised political fund control law.

The lawmakers apparently fear that the new ban may lead to even stricter regulations on corporate donations in general.

Taro Nakayama, chair of the LDP political reform panel that compiled a report in favor of donations, said that recent media reports may be giving the public the impression that all corporate donations are evil.

“It is argued through the media that donations that use ‘the second pocket’ of local chapters are also evil. That’s not right,” said Nakayama.

Echoing the panel’s report, many members expressed their opposition against the proposed ban at Tuesday’s executive council meeting.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who heads the LDP, announced Wednesday his intention to ban corporate donations to individual lawmakers in January 2000 as scheduled.

What led him to make a decision that clearly opposes the will of a significant portion of his party?

“(The LDP) fears it could lose elections because public reaction may be very severe,” claimed Yukio Hatoyama, president of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force.

According to a recent poll by the major daily Mainichi Shimbun, the approval rate for the Obuchi Cabinet fell to 32 percent from 48 percent in the previous poll, held in October. The disapproval rate rose to 39 percent from 24 percent.

The media have harshly attacked the conclusion reached by LDP panel, pointing out that continuing to allow corporate donations would break a promise made to the public and written in law five years ago. The move was aimed at wiping out political corruption.

On top of that, the Obuchi Cabinet has recently suffered a number of setbacks that apparently raised the LDP’s sense of crisis for the next Lower House election, which must to be held before October 2000.

One was the government’s management of a nuclear fuel facility in Ibaraki Prefecture that became the site of Japan’s most serious nuclear accident.

Another was the Supreme Court’s ruling that upheld the guilty verdict on former LDP executive Takao Fujinami in the Recruit stock-for-favors scandal.

Further disparaging the LDP’s image is a growing rift among the coalition parties over the new public-care insurance system for the elderly.

Most recently, the LDP even tried to ignore an article of the Political Funds Control Law that would ban corporate donations.

“It is true the public is not viewing the LDP favorably (on the corporate donations issue),” said LDP Secretary General Yoshiro Mori, who is pushing for the ban.

“After a number of disgraceful affairs, it is the LDP that has pushed for political reforms … We should go back to the starting point again,” Mori continued.

Yet loopholes remain. Political scholars point out that most Diet members are now living on “three wallets” — an official fund management body, a local party chapter, and private election-backing organizations.

Based on Obuchi’s decision, corporate donations to the official fund management body are expected to be banned starting in January 2000. But the body can continue to receive unlimited amounts of “donations” from a political party chapter.

On top of that, there is no limit on the number of local chapters that a political party can set up. A party can establish a variety of “chapters” with different names but no substance, simply to increase the amount of funds it can receive.

Private election-backing organizations for a lawmaker are not allowed to receive direct corporate donations.

But those bodies, in fact, can also raise funds by selling tickets for “parties” where supporters often shell out 20,000 yen each for admission.

According to a 1996 survey jointly carried out by the vernacular daily Asahi Shimbun and political scholars, an average LDP Lower House member elected through a single-seat constituency raises 131.72 million yen a year.

Of the total, the official fund management body accounts for only 57 percent, while the local chapter accounts for 33 percent and private support organizations 10 percent.

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