Osaka – Earlier in December, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dodged a bullet as Tokyo prosecutors decided not to indict him over allegations that his supporters group failed to report about ¥30 million spent on gatherings between 2016 and 2018.
But as criticism mounted against the former prime minister following the summary indictment of his secretary, Abe, in a highly unusual move, apologized before sessions of both Diet chambers.
“I’m acutely aware of the significance of my political responsibility. Again, I apologize to all members of the public and lawmakers,” Abe said during a Diet session on Friday.
Abe’s apologies and explanation, however, have tainted his legacy, created further questions about the scandal and may have a negative effect on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s political career as well.
What happened to the investigation by prosecutors earlier in December?
On Dec. 21, Abe was voluntarily questioned by Tokyo prosecutors over his role in a scandal involving his political support group, which was headed by Hiroyuki Haikawa, a state-paid secretary to Abe.
During Abe’s term as prime minister, the support group held banquets for Abe’s closest supporters in Tokyo hotels. Attendees were reportedly charged ¥5,000 per person, even though the rate at the hotels is at least ¥11,000 per person.
Prosecutors had been investigating whether Abe’s group illegally subsidized the cost of the parties, which were attended by voters and supporters from his constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
On Thursday, prosecutors issued a summary indictment to Haikawa over his involvement. While Haikawa was ordered to pay a ¥1 million fine, prosecutors decided not to indict Abe himself.
How has Abe reacted to the indictment?
On Thursday evening, Abe held a news conference during which he apologized repeatedly.
He appeared in the Diet for voluntary questioning over the scandal the following day. In both cases, he insisted that the subsidy payments were made without his knowledge, but that he felt a moral responsibility for the scandal.
But during his tenure as prime minister, Abe made 118 statements in the Diet about the scandal that proved to be false, according to a Lower House research bureau.
In addition to his denials that his office had offered funds, the false statements included Abe’s insistence that, as no payments had been made, there was no need to officially report them, the role of his support group in the parties and the existence of invoices.
What is likely to happen to Abe now?
Though he escaped an indictment, the scandal is not expected to go away. Once a regular Diet session is convened in January, opposition parties are expected to demand that Abe re-appear for Diet questioning as a sworn witness who could be legally liable if he commits perjury.
Abe will also face questions in and out of the Diet over whether he will agree to submit, as the opposition parties have demanded, both receipts and a detailed invoice for the parties. During Friday questioning in the Diet, Abe said that his office did not have a detailed invoice and that the hotel, citing business confidentiality, would not provide one.
There were also calls for Abe to ask the hotels to reissue the receipts that were originally reported as lost. Abe said that he would discuss it with his office.
This could be a crucial issue. While the contract for the parties was between the hotel and Abe’s support group headed by Haikawa, there are questions as to whether the receipts were made out to that group or to a separate political funds group headed by Abe himself.
If it’s the latter, Abe could once again find himself under formal investigation. The former prime minister has so far resisted calls to resign as a lawmaker.
What has the political fallout been for Abe and the Suga administration?
After Abe resigned as prime minister in September, he reportedly expressed his intention to once again become a member of the Liberal Democratic Party’s largest faction, headed by former chief Cabinet secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, to which he had belonged before he became prime minister. That could have happened as early as spring.
This move was seen by some in political circles as Abe’s desire to once again become LDP president, and therefore prime minister, for the third time.
But with the scandal, Abe said Thursday, “I’m not thinking of returning” to the faction.
The Abe scandal has also affected Suga, who served as his chief Cabinet secretary and gave his own false answers to questions, including in the Diet, about the scandal.
At a Friday news conference following Abe’s Diet testimony, Suga apologized for statements he made, saying they differed from the truth. He had defended Abe as chief Cabinet secretary, repeating Abe’s assertions that no payments had been made.
Suga added he would further explain himself in the Diet. But on Sunday, he avoided a clear answer as to whether he would stand again for LDP president, and thus prime minister, in autumn.
With the scandal, Suga’s political future has become even more uncertain at a time when he is already unpopular for his response to the coronavirus, and he is expected to face an uphill battle in a general election next year.
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