The special Diet session following the Oct. 22 Lower House election wrapped up Friday, coming to a lackluster end that shed little light on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s alleged scandals and saw the opposition struggle to maintain the upper hand in its battle to unseat him.
The monthlong session kicked off in early November by rubber-stamping Abe’s re-election as prime minister, a protocol that followed a sweeping victory by his ruling coalition in the October general election.
Opposition lawmakers had originally hailed the session as a much-anticipated opportunity to grill Abe over two favoritism scandals that once significantly eroded his support.
Such a session was long overdue because Abe, in an apparent bid to dodge such questioning, had earlier resorted to the controversial political tactic of dissolving a fall session of the Diet the moment it convened in late September, thereby denying opposition lawmakers any chance to publicly quiz him over the so-called Moritomo and Kake scandals.
On Nov. 22, the Board of Audit publicized a much-anticipated report on a shady land deal involving school operator Moritomo Gakuen and the Finance Ministry. The board concluded that the ministry gave a 86 percent discount on a lot in Osaka based on faulty data, possibly underestimating the amount of industrial waste buried in the compound as part of an apparent sweetheart deal.
Meanwhile, during the Diet session, the Finance Ministry for the first time admitted the veracity of several data files filled with the recorded voices of ministry and Moritomo officials.
Media outlets reported the existence of the recorded conversations from pre-sale meetings months ago. The reports have claimed the voices suggest that ministry officials were engaging in “price negotiations” with Moritomo even before land value was officially estimated by a third party. The ministry claimed it never offered any price during the pre-sale talks with Moritomo Gakuen.
Those findings have further deepened public suspicion that the ministry gave the 86 percent discount in light of the school’s strong ties to Akie Abe, the wife of the prime minister.
Opposition lawmakers, however, found no evidence during the Diet session that either of the Abes were involved in the land negotiations. In that sense, Abe averted any serious political fallout from the Moritomo scandal during the session.
Abe said he will “sincerely” take up the findings in the Board of Audit’s report but rejected calls to launch an official re-investigation of the Moritomo land deal.
Further complicating the opposition’s efforts to quiz Abe was a sudden proposal by the ruling bloc to curtail the amount of questioning time allocated to them, which is roughly 80 percent of the total.
The ruling bloc initially insisted, much to the dismay of the opposition, on a 50-50 ratio, citing its landslide victory in the October election that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, for one, said would justify LDP lawmakers representing the public in the Diet more frequently.
After a period of wrangling between the two sides, the ratio eventually ended up being 70 percent for the opposition and 30 percent for the ruling bloc, according to calculations by local media, signaling a shift away from the traditional 80-20 ratio.
Another break from tradition was the lack of a 45-minute one-on-one debate between Abe and each opposition leader.
According to the Lower House, this year marked the first time since the one-on-one debates were introduced in 2000 that such an exchange between the prime minister and opposition leaders was not held at all.