Public prosecutors on Thursday arrested former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai and his lawmaker wife, Anri Kawai, on charges of vote-buying during her successful Upper House election bid last summer, further pushing the duo into legal trouble and presenting perhaps the biggest political challenge yet this year to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The couple was ordered to report to authorities early Thursday. They are accused of distributing as much as ¥25 million in total to roughly 100 prefectural and city assembly members in Hiroshima — Anri Kawai’s precinct — ahead of the House of Councilors election in July of last year. It is believed that her husband was essentially running her campaign.

The arrest is a severe blow to the Abe administration, especially because of Katsuyuki Kawai’s closeness to Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. He was a former policy adviser to Abe and the head of a caucus in the Liberal Democratic Party that essentially backed Suga.

Suga declined to comment in his daily briefing Thursday, only repeating his previous remark that Katsuyuki Kawai should remain accountable for any actions he may have taken.

Opposition parties are determined to go after Abe for his responsibility in appointing Kawai as justice minister, the position overseeing prosecutors and the judiciary.

“It’s disappointing that the Kawais did not demonstrate accountability before they were arrested, during the 150-day Diet session that finished yesterday,” said Jun Azumi, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan diet affairs chief.

The couple is also alleged to have paid wages to Anri Kawai’s campaign workers beyond the legal limit, a revelation reported last autumn in a weekly tabloid magazine. Following the report, he stepped down as justice minister even though he denied any involvement.

Her secretary was found guilty of making illegal payments to election staffers and sentenced to 18 months in prison, suspended for five years, Tuesday. Due to the guilt-by-complicity system stipulated in election law, Anri Kawai’s victory could be nullified.

The couple left the Liberal Democratic Party on Wednesday but refused to relinquish their seats in the Diet. They have yet to publicly address the allegations against them.

Thursday’s arrest marks a new phase in a legal showdown between prosecutors and the Prime Minister’s Office, whose relations became strained over the administration’s initial eagerness to appoint Hiromu Kurokawa, then the head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office, as prosecutor-general, a post that is currently held by Nobuo Inada.

The current prosecutor-general is expected to step down and hand over the reins when he completes the traditional two-year tenure in August. The Cabinet wanted to let Kurokawa, who was seen to have a cozy relationship with the Prime Minister’s Office, remain in his post until August despite having hit the retirement age of 63. It was an unprecedented move that critics suggested was done so as to help shield the administration from damaging investigations — including the probe into the Kawais.

However, Kurokawa was forced to step down after it was reported he played mahjong for money with newspaper reporters during the coronavirus state of emergency. Makoto Hayashi, head of the Nagoya High Public Prosecutor’s Office, took over Kurokawa’s job and is believed to be a leading candidate for the prosecutor-general position, a much less desirable scenario for the Abe administration.

The probe into the Kawais was led primarily by prosecutors in Hiroshima, but it is expected that an investigative team from the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office will take over due to the sensitive political nature of the investigation.

Earlier this year, the weekly Shukan Bunshun reported that two Hiroshima chapters of the ruling LDP, headed by Anri and Katsuyuki Kawai, received a total of ¥75 million each from the party headquarters over the course of three months before the Upper House election last July. But Katsuyuki’s money was diverted to Anri, bringing her total to ¥150 million, an unusually high amount targeted at a single district in an election.

It is suspected that some of the money was the source of the funds in the alleged illegal payments made to Anri Kawai’s campaign staff.

Abe and Suga themselves traveled to Hiroshima to lend their support during her election bid.

The amount of money and the strong backing from the LDP reflected the party’s ardent desire for her to win the district.

The series of scandals associated with the Kawais could be politically detrimental for the Abe administration, since they have raised suspicions that his party orchestrated the influx of money in order to oust incumbent LDP heavyweight Kensei Mizote, who is viewed as a long-time political opponent of the prime minister.

For the election, the LDP fielded both Anri Kawai and Mizote in the two-seat Hiroshima district, splitting the votes of its supporters. Mizote lost his seat as a result, and the LDP headquarters’ strong backing of Kawai was rumored to be retaliation from Abe.

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